The reason I got to thinking about entropy recently is because I started seeing a pattern: relationships with students often fall apart.
I've written a lot about how relationships aren't the point of school — it's actually not “all about relationships” — but they sure are important. Perhaps most critically, caring relationships enhance my credibility; they also make teaching a lot richer and more fun.
But building relationships is only the first skill you need to practice; relationship repair is a critical skill, too. Why? Because if you are a school teacher, you've got dozens or hundreds of individual relationships going on this school year. You might as well expect some of them to need fixing at some point.
The second law of thermodynamics seems to exist not just in the natural universe, but in the social realm, too. Relationships tend toward disrepair.
Mariah had a bad night at home last night, so she comes to school with a storm cloud over her head, but I misinterpret the storm cloud to mean something less than it is, so I make light of her grumpiness and cajole her into starting the warm-up, and she interprets this as me being mean…
And there you go! I've done the worst thing I can possibly do for my credibility: I've offended her.
But all hope is not lost, so long as I'm emotionally mature enough to recognize a few facts:
- I didn't try to offend her.
- But I did offend her.
- And her offense is true even if I can get an impartial observer to agree with me that what I did should not have been offensive.
- So my job is now to seek repair. (That or accept a less-motivated Mariah until she works through the offense herself, which never happens.)
So how do we repair? Pretty simple:
- I've detected that I might have offended Mariah.
- During independent work time or after class, I pull Mariah aside and say, “Hey. Have I offended you? Did I do something that hurt you?”
- If she says “Yes,” I apologize.
- If she says “No,” I say that the way my students feel in my class matters to me and that I do make mistakes sometimes and that if I ever do offend her, I would just ask that she tell me so I can understand what happened and try to make it right.
It's not a silver bullet process; it doesn't give me omnipotent control over the heart of Mariah. I can't require her to forgive me — heck, I can't even require her to tell me that I've done something hurtful.
But I can pull her aside and I can genuinely seek to make amends. That is in my control, every day.
And so by looking for relationships that might need repair and doing the simple, genuine, quick work of asking and apologizing, I ward off the thing that I've observed to be true: entropy applies to our relationships, too.
Accept it, then adjust expectations and work accordingly.
(And PS: stop beating yourself up when you offend somebody. Do the repair work, look for takeaways, and keep moving forward.)