How a Broken Bone Helped Me Find Compassion for My Students

It was the worst holiday break ever. But it helped me to see my students in a new light.

How a Broken Bone Gave Me New Compassion

Like all teachers, I was ready for some time off when the holidays hit. My wife is also a teacher, so this was the magical time of year when we get a chance to walk away from the all-consuming nature of teaching and reconnect, recharge and relax.

This year was extra-special, as we had pushed every penny we had into a pile to stay at this place in the rural mountains of Vermont. No cell coverage. No Wi-Fi. Just us, our two boys, our dog Atticus, a pile of board games and the snow. The whole family even signed up to take snowboarding lessons together.

But things didn’t exactly go as planned. We hit Vermont in the middle of an ice storm that no one predicted and had to walk the last two miles up the mountain to our house in the freezing rain. Then on our second day, five minutes from the end of my snowboarding lesson, I fell and shattered my wrist.

Needless to say, it was not the kind of break we had envisioned.

Returning to work, my writing hand casted from knuckles to armpit, I did not feel the usual post-break vigor. I felt cranky, angry and annoyed by the needs of my students. But as the first week passed, I realized three key things about the students I teach.

1. They may be just as cranky as I am.

When I broke my wrist, I knew I’d be looking at a winter of no snowboarding, no cross-country skiing, no lifting weights and no pond hockey. These activities are what keep me sane during the winter; they are what keep me calm and level-headed, allowing me to be a patient and kind husband, father and teacher.

I knew I couldn’t sit and be angry, though. And it made me think of my students’ point of views as well. When I look into the eyes of a student who is a bit surly on a Monday morning, I must try to see past the scope of class and consider what other aspect of his life might be perched atop his desk like some invisible spectre there to torment him and draw his attention away from our work.

2. Their issues are usually not as obvious as my bright-blue cast.

Right now, all of my colleagues and students are constantly offering me little kindnesses throughout my day. People are holding the door, stopping to commiserate with their own stories of broken bones, and repeatedly telling me they hope I feel better. And guess what? That feels pretty nice.

Yet that is often not what students experience when something less obvious than a wrist breaks in their lives, often somewhere deep in the shadowy parts of their souls, the parts teachers never see. Sometimes places no one ever sees.

When I am a little curt, everyone looks at my arm and understands. When a seemingly healthy kid lashes out, without a bright-blue cast announcing the reason, many teachers fail to look for the cause. Too often we forget there is usually some pain or loss underlying the behavior. We resort to phone calls home, detentions or discipline referrals.

3. They might not know when their break will be healed. 

I am in this cast for six weeks. I can look forward to late winter snowboarding and early spring cycling. I have a series of check-ups scheduled already where I will get clear updates about my progress. Most of the broken bits of my students have no schedule. In their teenage eyes, many of their problems seem to have no conceivable end. Their parents’ divorce, the chubby kid they see in the mirror, the kids throwing shade on Twitter. These are the things that make them act out in class or prevent them from doing their best work. They will not resolve neatly in six weeks.

My resolution for this year is to look with just a bit more empathy at those kids who give me a run for my money. For kids who get disrespectful or defiant, I am going to try to remember that they are likely nursing some wound. I am going to try to remember that healing only comes through time and kindness. I am going to tell them the story of my holiday vacation, and see if I can get a glimmer of what is broken. Like the people who helped me on the mountain, I am going to offer to help and try to get them the resources they need to heal.

Jeremy Knoll

Posted by Jeremy Knoll

Knoll is a public school English teacher of nearly two decades. Outside of the classroom he spends his time working as a freelance writer or exploring the outdoors with his wife, two boys, and dog. He loves the subject he teaches so much that he named his dog Atticus and got a half-sleeve tattoo depicting a scene from Maurice Sendak's WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE to celebrate the birth of his kids.

One Comment

  1. Frances Peacock

    Thanks for writing this, Jeremy. You remind me that my own experiences that are tough to get through make me more sensitive and compassionate to my students.