TGIF: Nightmares and Compliment Circles

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My whole body shuddered awake under the covers. Groggily, I heaved my it to a seated position and gently swung my legs around so that my bare feet touched the softness of the carpet beneath my bed.

It was 4:30 am and I had awoken from one of those all-too-common teacher nightmares. This delightful episode featured a non-existent colleague, who had deliberately made her way down to my classroom to inform me of my below-average teaching performance, how I needed to be doing more, and how I would never take my students to where they needed to go. Ugh!

“I knew it all along,” I can still hear her smug voice echoing in my mind, as she wagged a disapproving finger at me. “You don’t know what you’re doing, do you?”

Not good enough. Imposter. Oh boy…here it was again. At the beginning of every school year, in one form or another, that doubtful fear resurfaces. The kids won’t listen. I’ll somehow blow it with a parent. I will misunderstand a kid. I’ll lose the respect and control of the class. And, every year…somehow, despite all doubts, it all works out.

After grabbing a cup of coffee and gradually tuning back into the reality of the present moment, I started thinking: I’m an experienced teacher, now. I’ve been doing this for around 10 years. How is it possible that I can feel like this, knowing that things always have a way of working out? How many other educators, educational assistants, and principals wake up from dreams like this, gripped for a moment by the self-defeating belief that even their best efforts won’t cut it.

Then, I started thinking about my students. Surely, if I feel this way, they must, too. How many kids are confined by a crippling fear of failure or of not measuring up? How many of them, with their little brains still developing, believe in their hearts that their efforts won’t be enough? And, more importantly, how does that negative self-talk manifest? Crumpled-up papers? Silly behaviour? Grumpy sullenness? Refusal to speak in class? Overt oppositional outbursts? Yep, sounds about right!

Staring out onto their faces during Friday morning check-in, I decided to tell them about my bad dream. Of course, I didn’t dive into the details (those are somewhat irrelevant to a bunch of 6- and 7-year olds ), but I told them about my dream, nonetheless. Their little eyes grew wide with genuine surprise. The thing is, we adults forget to show them our human vulnerabilities. It seemed to surprise them that an adult could have nightmares or fears. But, what I’ve learned from every conversation I’ve had with educators, parenting experts, neuroscientists, and notable culture-shifters is that showing an appropriate amount of vulnerability builds deep, unbreakable trust. And when a child trusts you, some pretty incredible things have the potential to occur.

So, after sharing, I asked my students if they had ever had a bad dream. All of their hands shot up. Next, I asked them to share whether they had experienced nightmares during the first few days of school and nearly all of their little hands remained stretched high. We talked about their worries about the new school year, their friendships, and their struggles with learning. It was a powerful moment. We all need to be reminded that we’re normal, that we’re ok, and that we’re not alone in our experience.

Later that afternoon, for the first time ever in my career, I gathered my students in a circle on the carpet and explained that we would be starting a Friday tradition called Compliment Circles. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure it was going to work and I was feeling somewhat skeptical. After discussing the meaning of compliments, we agreed that they were nice things we say to make others feel good.

“My friends, compliments are also like mountains,” I explained as I drew a pointy, snow-capped mountain on the whiteboard.

As I drew a line near the bottom, I described that the first, superficial level of the mountain is the easiest to climb. “These compliments are usually about what you see, someone’s appearance or clothing.”

“The next level is about listening and noticing; it’s a bit of a tougher hike. You might point out how clean someone is keeping their desk area, how well they can throw a ball or how good someone is at reading,” I went on, touching the middle of the mounting with my hand. I reminded them of some compliments we had received from the custodian, the principal and the neighbouring classroom about manners, eating, and tidiness. We counting the compliments and reflected on how these had made us feel as a class.

“But, Mrs. Michael, what’s the top part of the mountain for?” one of the students interrupted. I drew a heart at the summit of the mountain: “These are the most special and challenging compliments of all to give. It can feel like rising to the top of a mountain. These are the compliments we notice with our hearts. For example, we can feel when someone is trying their best. We can feel when someone is being kind. We can feel when someone has made a special effort to support us when we’re sad.”

We discussed the rules for the exchange of a compliment (which, it turns out is similar to how we give and receive a gift) and some compliment sentence starters.

  1. Speak loudly
  2. Say their name
  3. Be respectful
  4. Be sincere (Say it like you mean it)
  5. Say “Thank You”

Then, it was time to start. I encouraged them to start at the first level of the mountain, choosing a compliment about appearance (we’d be working out way up the mountain this year).

Every child had a turn and I was heartened to see some of my quieter students compliment their classmates with pride in their eyes. Once everyone had received a compliment, I congratulated them on their first Compliment Circleand was just about to transition to the end-of-day procedure, when a last-minute hand shot up.

Nodding for her to share, she said earnestly, “Mrs. Michael, I have a compliment, but this time it’s for you…I love being in this class.”

“Oh…” I uttered, surprised and almost embarrassed by the unexpected tears springing to my eyes. Then I smiled at her, “That means so much to me. Thank you for that compliment. That really filled my bucket.”

Blinking my eyes quickly, I sent the kids on their way, a warmth spreading through my chest knowing that no matter the dreams or doubts I might have about this year, what matters most was that each student feels seen, heard, and loved in this classroom.

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