Crying is such a true showing of character and awareness, and is really nice in appropriate doses. There have been a quite a few instances where I have been relieved and happy to see students cry. Here are three:
1. The first time it happened in my classroom was in a 6th grade dance class, my first year of teaching. I was teaching a lesson on how dance can tell a story and after a few warm-up activities I let the students go to make up their own dances. I told them I was there to help but I didn’t want to know what their story was. At the end, they would show the class and we would all try to guess what story they were telling. Most groups told the story of a sports event or some simple thing like getting caught with a cell phone in class. When the last group of reluctant boys got up and started to run, dive, roll, motion to each other, and ended in a huddle, I was stumped. Then I noticed a student crying! My first thought was to call the guidance counselor, but fortunately I decided to ask why they were crying. She told me that the dance made her sad because it was about how you have to sneak into America. Other students chimed in, retelling the story of the dance – crawling through the tunnel, waiting for the guy in the truck, etc. I didn’t know what in the world to say! Then I looked over at the performers and they were beaming that they had done such a good job. We didn’t discuss the story any further, but I will never forget that realization that I had nothing to do with the success of that dance, but had provided the opportunity for it be made. Those tears broke my heart and filled my heart. It was not a breakthrough for the students but for me.
2. My second year of teaching I had a 7th grade class performing in an Arts Showcase for potential new students coming from elementary schools. We had two shows that day and the class I chose had worked hard on their dance and displayed focus in rehearsal. BUT when they got on stage to perform it, there were several students who were laughing with and behaving in a very embarrassing way. One in particular showed zero remorse when I talked to the class after the first performance so I pulled her outside to speak with her privately. I expressed how disappointed I was in her, mostly because she had so much natural talent for dance and performance. She did not budge. I went on to say that she needed to go take off her costume and go back to class. I did not think it was fair for her to be out of class, representing our school, her class, and me with that type of work ethic. She burst into tears. She apologized and said that she didn’t know why she had acted that way. I didn’t budge (teenagers, like toddlers, can be very manipulative). She went on to say that she didn’t realize that this performance was really important and that she would do better. I waited. She finally said that she was disappointed in herself because usually she’s a class leader and she wasn’t acting like it that day. At that point I hugged her and said that I was glad she was crying because it showed that she was feeling something, and that something was remorse. I suggested that she return to her class and apologize for her actions, which she did. The second performance was much better and for the rest of the year, that student made sure that everyone, including herself, was focused when they needed to be. Her tears represented the responsibility that she accepted for the success of others (a big step, especially for a 7th grader).
3. The majority of crying in my class happens in group work. I try very hard to balance the students’ desire to work with friends with my job as a teacher to help them break out of their comfort zone. This is not taken lightly and I always prepare myself for the worst when I present the projects where they do not choose their partner. (I also assign these partners randomly so that I have no personal credit in the dismay that might follow.) Last week I started all of my 7th and 8th graders out on the journey to create movement for their class dances that will be performed in the spring departmental concert. The pain hit on the third day in my 3rd period A-day 7th grade class where two very strong women were paired together. One was working feverishly, despite the other, and the other was wasting as much time as possible distracting other groups. I gave gentle reminders for them to get to work and as we approached our first showing, I saw the dam breaking. The non-working student went first with a loud protest that she simply would not continue and she didn’t care if I sent her out, so, as usual, we stepped outside and had a LONG talk. As soon as I won her over things went better but their showing was predictably disappointing. As I gave a few suggestions for how they could improve… the other one broke down. While they cried for different reasons, they both ended at the same point, they would be able to move forward next class. Their tears created common ground and provided relief from the pent-up anxiety that they were holding back. For me, it was a relief of my anxiety that this situation could have easily led to blows, but by not fueling it, we had worked together to bring resolution.
Crying, while sometimes uncomfortable, reminds me of the struggles and growth that are happening in my classroom. If I had one wish for all teachers, it would be that they get to experience the raw emotion and feelings of their students, because I see it as a sign that they trust that I will know what to do and how to handle it (even if I rarely feel like I do.)