What a Grimm Witch Can Teach us About Teaching

The Secret Work of Being a Teacher

Perhaps the hardest thing about teaching — or parenting (or mentoring)- is that we are constantly modeling for our students. They are continually watching our moves, even when we think they aren’t listening, even when we think they don’t care.

It’s exhausting because we can’t catch a break. We make our lesson plans with the goal of engaging our students. We try to make things interesting in order to teach them what’s important, but children can be frustrating! They get rowdy, they don’t listen, and they can be rude. All our great plans, all our great lessons, are laid to waste at the feet of these children who won’t listen!

In that oh-so-beautiful musical Into the Woods, the Witch laments:

No matter what you say
Children won’t listen
No matter what you know
Children refuse
To learn
Guide them along the way
Still they won’t listen

(listen to full lament here)

Because it feels like children don’t listen or aren’t paying attention, we can sometimes be sloppy. We might speak sarcastically to them, talk about them like they aren’t there, or gossip to our colleagues within earshot of children. We might say hateful things, or mean things. We might express our own opinions so strongly that our students are afraid to disagree, or might simply accept our opinion as fact. Sometimes we are so afraid they won’t learn life’s methods, we hold on too tight and don’t let them make necessary mistakes (or maybe even lock them away in a protected tower).

The Witch later realizes she had it wrong. It’s not that children aren’t listening, they listen when we don’t realize it, they learn when we don’t know it, and they inevitably become individuals.

Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see
And learn
Children may not obey, but children will listen
Children will look to you for which way to turn
To learn what to be
Careful before you say “Listen to me”
Children will listen

(listen to full song here)

So: It’s really hard to be a teacher, not only because your character is so thoroughly on display every day, but because you are so impactful. We have to have a kind of personal vigilance, a thoughtfulness, an honesty, and an openness, that is demanding to maintain. But this secret work — this behind-the-scenes work never reported in evaluations, this work of being a good person who models honesty, compassion, and dignity every day — is the most important work an educator does for our society.

The enormity of this secret work can be daunting, but in the end we are all human, and the simplest way to do this work is to develop your self-awareness. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to consider what kind of model you are being every day.

3 Questions to Consider at the End of the Day

What things did I do or say that could leave an unintended impact on my students?

Ex. Sometimes I roll my eyes at questions I think are obvious, or sometimes I speak sarcastically to a student who annoys me. When I do these things, I could be unintentionally showing my students it’s ok to treat people that way. I could also be hurting that child’s self esteem or teaching him to be mistrustful of others.

What things did I stay silent about that could impact my students?

Ex. Jess is a really good student and I know I don’t have to worry about her being on task. Today I overheard her making fun of a student in another class. I was busy trying to keep struggling students going and I acted like I didn’t hear her. I know I gave her a pass because she’s kind of a teacher’s pet. The students I was working with might think I let Jess get away with stuff I would never let them get away with. I wasn’t being fair to them, or to Jess, and it might look as though I think it’s no big deal to tear others down. That’s not the kind of environment I want at our school.

What things might they have noticed me do when I though they weren’t paying attention?

Ex. I was chatting with some other teachers in the hall and we were gossiping about a recent teacher’s meeting in which we didn’t agree with some of the other teachers. I didn’t think any students were paying attention, but if they had been, I don’t like what they would have heard. I wasn’t being kind or thoughtful in my complaints.

This is our second post about lessons to be learned about teaching and modeling from “Into the Woods.” Read our first post here and use the free lesson idea: Easy to Judge but Hard to Listen.