Photo credit: pshab via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC

Why Trump’s Tweets Remind Me Of Teaching Seventh Grade

Don’t get distracted from the work that’s really important to respond to the noise.

When I taught middle school, a boy — I’ll call him Joey — in my afternoon class made every minute with him feel like he was rubbing sandpaper on the inside of my skull. If he wasn’t bullying someone, he was insulting me or someone else. Joey wouldn’t follow even the slightest norms of behavior: he laughed loudly and inappropriately, tried to forcibly eject gas from his body as much as he could, and tried his best to keep me weary enough to not notice how little work he did.

And it wasn’t just me. The school nurse, his counselor, his football coach, and assistant principal all expressed some form of saying “he is going to be the death of me” on a regular basis.

Would it surprise you to know that Joey couldn’t really read or that his writing made little to no sense? Of course it wouldn’t because even without you having to be his teacher, I think you can see that Joey did this to distract all of us from these weaknesses. Joey was feared by many of his classmates, which he mistook for popularity, or tolerated as a useful clown by others who took advantage of his constant disruption to avoid their own work.

For months, I allowed Joey’s ruse to work on me. I stopped doing anything the moment he started up. He kept me so busy with his behavior that I felt ragged and weary after 40 minutes with him. Finally, I realized what he was doing. On a gut level, Joey knew this truth: Being distracted makes it easy to be manipulated.

Guess who else knows that? Our President. Thanks to Twitter, Trump has the ability, just like Joey, to pull a whole swath of us off task constantly. And just like all of that sound and fury signifying nothing courtesy of Joey, Trump’s words leave us outraged, disgusted, tired, and sad.

But how we respond is a choice.

I’m ashamed to say that it took me most of the school year to figure out that the more I engaged with Joey, the more I found myself reduced to his level, reactive, hostile, and above all, distracted.

Do I think that the President knows what he’s doing when he decides, early in the morning, to fire off a tweet that upends norms, reverses major policy, insults all manner of people, and reveals a seemingly bottomless pettiness? I can’t speak to his intentions. It’s just that the behavior seems so familiar to me.

But I will say this — refusing to react does serve to starve the distractor of attention. Calm, deliberate action is deadly to manipulators. Staying focused on what’s important, refusing to play their game — these decisions also help.

There’s a technique called “the broken record” that I learned in teacher training that’s basically what it sounds like: robotically, dispassionately repeating the same message (“Keep your hands to yourself, Joey”) until the distractor realizes you won’t engage with them. This is what I think is the most helpful response. Just repeat the rules, norms, or directives over and over, like so:

Ultimately, what really helped me with Joey was remembering that his time with me was limited. That I could look forward to working with other students; that the Joeys of the world are mercifully rare. Today, that thought helps me with the awfulness of the news. What seems like it will never end, will end.

All we have to do is stay focused on the work and the people we’re called to serve.

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