Coal in my brother's Christmas stocking meant one thing - he had been bad that year, or at least in my parents' recent memory. While the rest of us were unwrapping chocolate coins and peppermint canes, my brother stood in horror, looking at the black lumps in his stocking. It hadn't been much work to fill his stocking - a quick trip to the coal bin in the cellar. Maybe that was the insult added to the injury. It took more time and effort to put brightly-wrapped yummies in the other four stockings than to toss dirty black coal into his.
My parents loved Christmas. They hid gifts for five children in the neighbor's basement to insure the element of surprise. My rather introverted dad supervised decorating the front door and the tree, making sure there was Christmas music playing in the background, and Mom's abundant goodies were available during the festivities. Dad's grumpy side came out only when we woke him up before dawn to see what Santa had left for us. With this as a backdrop, the threat of coal instead of candy being realized was, on a kid's level, powerful.
After the effect had been achieved, my parents pulled out goodies for my brother as well. I don't know how, or even if, he remembers this day, but I never forgot it. It didn't seem like a small thing to me, to be labeled as bad for a WHOLE YEAR, and then somehow to be treated as though the slight had never happened.
There are so many ways we communicate to ourselves and to our students that connect to this story. How easy it is to say the first words that come out of our mouths, without realizing that the words may be heard as verbal lumps of coal. We are human, of course, and we get frustrated and tired and impatient and goal-oriented. And we do it to ourselves as well as to our students. In fact, we are often more cruel and unforgiving and irrational when we evaluate our own progress. We match our success against impossible standards, by-passing the signs that our practice is, indeed, paying off.
Maybe we learned this from teachers who were human and frustrated and tired and impatient and goal-oriented. Maybe we learned this from teachers who believed they had our best interests at heart by mercilessly reminding us of our short-comings, then sending us out to perform in public as though none of the lumps of the lesson would emerge on stage. All is forgiven - play well!
Reflecting on a new calendar year of teaching, I think of the potential to improve my self-talk as a way to teach my students healthy self-talk. Not unrealistic self-talk - my brother had been quite impish that year - because that is a false measure of achievement. Healthy self-talk is about realizing where one is in the process and setting goals for the next level that are attainable. Healthy self-talk does not self-elevate or self-deprecate irrationally. It's not coal or candy but a realistic mix of these, coupled with the occasional element of surprise.
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