My husband is the Principal of a school in a small town.
Generally speaking, that sentence should say nothing about me apart from the word “my”, but we are here in a country where there is a dying-but-not-quite-dead custom of bestowing women with their husbands’ titles. So the wife of a doctor is sometimes addressed as Frau Doktor and the wife of a Direktor (the German word for ”principal”) is Frau Direktor. It has already happened to me many times - originally as a kind of joke, which became a standard joke, and then later a nickname, and then a moniker, and finally an established way of greeting me. As much as I find this comical, I still have a weird sensation every time I walk through the front door of his school now - something has changed since the days when he was simply one of the 30 or so teachers there, half of whom I occasionally saw socially on a totally equal basis. Now there is a slight difference – or deference – in the way they greet and talk to me and, I assume, a difference in the way they hear what have to I say. The wife of the boss is talking . . .
Tonight was the Open House for the school and I attended in the triple roles of wife of the boss, mother of prospective student, and fellow teacher – just in a different school. In other words, I had to make sure to get through the evening without embarrassing my husband, disadvantaging my daughter or being disloyal either to the quirky alternative school I work in (and love) or the one I was standing in - the one I try to motivate my own students to attend once they leave us. I wandered around and made an attempt to greet everyone with some special individualized attention I worked the crowd, so to speak, and eventually ended up in the buffet surrounded by other language teachers. We stood in a circle and all eyes were on me, all words were directed at me, all my words were universally listened to.
I really really wish that my words were actually that interesting or important and that the social context had nothing to do with the attention I was getting. But they weren’t and it did. And it was out of my hands.
How much can you control how others see you? How they hear you?
“I feel I am not being heard.” That sentence was spoken by the mother of one of my students during a parent-teacher conference last month - the low point of a discussion that for some reason had quickly gone from bad to worse. I had noticed her and others in my school using this phrasing before. They had learned to express themselves this way in a series of Violence-free Communication seminars and probably considered it diplomatic. Personally I don’t see a hell of a lot of difference between this and “You aren’t listening to me.”
And boy was I listening! I just didn’t know what to make of it. She began with the fact that her son likes me a lot and he likes English and it is important to him to complete all his homework and so when he didn’t understand something, she sometimes just did it for him and why did I give so much homework and why cant I just spend 4 years singing songs and playing games with them?
Here are some of the undiplomatic responses I would have loved to make:
Did you think I was kidding when I said that parents should not
sit down with their kids and do their homework with them?
Its kind of helpful for me to know when the kids dont understand
something so that we can go over it together again. If their homework
is perfect, I think they have understood (whatever it was) and so I go
on to something new.
”My son wants to do his homework!”- Lady, do you have any idea
how many parents in this school would love to have your problems?
If you want to come to this class (of 13 and 14 year olds) and try to
sing a song with them, please be my guest.
I, of course, said none of the above. I dont even know how we ended the conversation, to tell the truth. I do, however, remember saying ”You know . . . I am not really very sensitive or emotional compared to a lot of the people here. I look at my (school) kids and think: Do they like English? Are they learning? Are they happy? And if all three answers are yes then I figure things are basically going fine.” From her reaction I could feel that I was suddenly being heard. And I have no idea why. The next morning her son happily announced that he had his homework assignment done and she pulled me aside to sort of apologize for the previous evening. Even so, I continued to brood, replaying the talk in my mind and trying to figure out where exactly things had begun to go south.
The minor detail I have so far left out is that this woman is technically my boss. One week before our conference, she had been elected Chairman of the association of parents that had created and still financed the school. Since our talk it seems she has figured out that everyone in the school now hears her differently.