Teaching is Bad for Brazen

by beccaborrelli

There’s something about working with young children that makes you see the good in everybody. Even when people do really shitty things, I have this weird propensity for looking at them as a scared Kindergartener.

I didn’t always used to be this way, and in some regards I’m still just as bitchy and retaliatory as the next… but there is definitely a trajectory towards excessive patience that I can’t ignore.

This might frustrate people who care about me.

Perhaps rightfully so.

Recently, something happened with a person I care about– an emotional sucker punch if you will– that ended up bruising my ego quite a bit. At first I was all about giving this person a piece of my mind. I vented to friends:

“Can you belieeeeve it?????” I mean wtf….”

Even though I consider myself relatively educated, intellectual and semi-mature, my vocabulary still devolves to trashy teen novel levels when I’m mad. Over time however, I began to soften and see the situation more objectively.

The unanimous verdict at that point was this: you’re too nice RB.

“Nice” never seemed like such a pejorative. I had a hard time denying this point, but something wasn’t sitting right. Looking back now I realize it’s because I’ve already had experience trying the “piece of mind” approach…

With kiddos.


Children are the best teachers. I could write tomes about what I’ve learned.

One of the lessons that came up nearly every day during my five year classroom stint was perhaps cliche, but still an incredibly pertinent truth about the human condition:

“The hardest ones to love, are the ones that need it most.”

Prior to being a teacher, I purported to practice this glorious sentiment over philosophical coffee talking. I was damn near Mother Theresa in my mind… although quite a few former boyfriends would have argued that point. The truth is, we all get this crazy blind spot that makes us feel like teachers of the universe… you know like we have a right hurt someone in pursuit of teaching them a lesson.

John Steinbeck said:

 The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.

We loooove to talk like Buddhas.

But when it comes to what we value… it’s more along the lines of Jersey Shore. Let’s be honest, no one is watching reality television shows about monks tending gardens. People want the drama. They want the greed and the ass kicking.

Which is fine when you’re talking about The Housewives of Beverly Hills.

But try doing that to a six year old.

Slightly less okay, you know?

The same egoists that champion kicking some adult ass, would be horrified if I descended that same wrath upon a young child. Something about the innocence of a child wakes us up to truth about being human… and if you are lucky enough to work with them for long enough, you are given another precious insight:

Adults who act like jerks really ARE just scared Kindergarteners.


I started teaching an after school art class on Tuesday nights.

It is  a small group of six children each week… a treat when I used to teach six hundred. On the first day, I discovered (quite quickly) one little fellow was frankly, “all over the place.” Within moments of meeting, I witnessed him do the exact opposite of group directions, roll around on the floor, throw some stuff, and yell about “greaaaaat art was.”

When I was teaching in public school on a good day, I would have found a creative way to preserve this child’s dignity, and firmly handle the problems he created. On a bad day? On a bad day I was a pedantic micro-manager… “Um, we  don’t do that… OKAY??

Listen… Listen… LIS-TEN!

I’m sorry but you’re choices are causing a problem so you have to put your name on the board…”

I have some STUFF to do here kiddo… paperwork, grades,  meeting, emails, budgets, ordering, organizing, creative lesson planning. A child like you is hindering me from doing my job…. and dangit you better learn to act like a good little boy or girl right this instant.

By the time I left public ed for graduate school, I was craving space to breathe. Space to actualize one of the primary truths in teaching:

This child isn’t keeping me from my job– this child IS my job.


On day one, J couldn’t sit. Directions were close to impossible. He interrupted loudly and often. He consistently lost control of his voice, his focus, and his body. This is the kind of behavior that would spur “Real Housewives” to cat fight it out on camera.

I was stressed for about thirty seconds that first day. Then I remembered:

I’m not swamped under mountains of obligations. I have SIX students.

So I tackled the problem in a way I would never have been able to consider when I was teaching in public ed.

I began the next week by having the students create their own art studios around the classroom. They came in, set up a personal work space with a drawing board, supplies, past and present artwork, and finally– hang a self-desgined studio plaque on the wall with their name. No longer were they subservient kids, they were professional artists. Not surprisingly they started acting like it too.

Next I began differentiating to an extreme I had never dared with hundreds of children across five grade levels. One student chose to paint a landscape from a photograph brought from home, another chose to graph a picture of a bunny. J began dissecting realistic drawing techniques using japanimation. As he hunched over his drawing board with a book on anime, I watched the clock. For one uninterrupted hour J was focused, quiet and still.


“Miss Rebecca” he says. (Ah how I love my first name so much more.)


“I work much better this way. Maybe I should do this more often.”

“What is that?”

“You know… work in my own studio space away from other people.”

“It feels good doesn’t it?”

YEAH…” he smiled.

“It’s funny how other people’s energy can affect your own.”

He paused and then another slow “Yeaahhhh….” came out of his mouth as the realization set in.

The following week as we set up our studios J said:

“I can’t wait to WORK.”


This made my whole f-ing day.

I felt like the sun in Aesop’s Fables.

At the end of class as we cleaned up, one of the girls complimented her friend:

“M always helps us!”

“Yes, I said… M is very good at that!”

J echoed my sentiment… “Yes, M is a good boy.”

I detected melancholy when he said the word “good.” I’m willing to bet few people have ever told him he is a “good boy.”

“YOU… I said… are a great boy.” I locked eyes with him, slightly surprised to realize I was not merely attempting to make him feel better. I truly believed it. His reactions were fleeting… but I caught them. In seconds his face went from disbelief…

to belief…

and then relief.

He said nothing while packing up his supplies, but as I watched him– even though I couldn’t be certain– his face seemed to say:


I am a good person.”


I finally decided to call up my person. The one I was supposed give a verbal ass kicking. I didn’t end up descending upon them with brazen wrath. I couldn’t even muster slight annoyance… rather we laughed and joked as if nothing was wrong. As we talked I couldn’t help but wonder if my friends would think I was being weak. Perhaps even I thought I was being weak.

Eventually I confessed how I was feeling.

A calm explanation on both sides ensued. We connected, I learned quite I bit I didn’t realize. We laughed and joked some more, and then hung up the phone… in peace.

I found myself wishing for a way to thank J… a way to thank all the difficult, misbehaved, outlandish, eccentric, and awkward minis who have taught me that true “bad-ass” is accomplished with a gentle touch. Thankfully, teaching as it turns out, is incredibly “bad” for my brazenness.