We have a special code at my house for “good job”. Step in the door with a high grade, a win, or any other action worthy of commendation, and you’ll receive the exclamation “Bad Addis!” (I’m sure you get the euphemism). But it didn’t start that way. When I first heard “Bad Addis” it really meant, “You’ve done a bad job Mrs. Addis”.
During my decade-plus as a special education teacher I had the fortune of working with teenagers, many of whom communicated in their own ways. Some used their words, some used their drawings, and some used their bodies. Throughout the year I would become attuned to their modes of expression. And along the way I would discover both who my students were, and who I was. I would also discover that mistakes aren’t the end, they are the beginning (@34:19).
The event that sparked our family saying involved an angry, frustrated student. I can’t even remember why, so it must have been something small in my mind. Obviously it was something big in his. As a student of few words, he shared his sentiments by turning his back to me. Then he walked to a corner where a study carrel joined the wall, and stayed there.
I was doing the best I could.
Imagining myself the consummate behaviorist I was not going to “pick up the rope”. Instead, I would ignore his actions. And that’s how I found myself in the middle of a power struggle. He with his back turned, and me acting as if this was a regular school day. The more I ignored, the more he tried to get my attention, the more I ignored. And so we went, with little resolution. In hindsight this does seem a bit absurd, but in the moment I was doing the best I could.
As things progressed neither of us was satisfied. I really wanted to get him back on track, right then. He really wanted me to react. I know this because with the passing moments his behavior heightened. It began with surreptitious glances in my direction, ramped up to verbal accusations of “Bad Addis”, and crescendoed with declarations of “F*ck Addis”. Honestly I don’t even remember how the situation ended. Rest assured though, we do still have a positive relationship.
I felt it was a statement of my ability as a teacher.
Needless to say I ended that day deflated. Not only had I failed to teach my student, but I felt like all my training and expertise had left me twisting in the wind. I was confronted with my lacking and felt it was a statement of my ability as a teacher. At the time, growth mindset hadn’t hit the scene. I had no idea that mistakes are part of learning. I didn’t know that all successful people make mistakes, learn from them, and try again. I didn’t have the words to say to myself, “I’m not good at this yet, but one day I will be better”. Instead I settled with “Boy do I suck!”.
After school I dragged myself home, hoping for some no-holds-barred sympathy. I imagined group hugs, and pats on the back, and lots of “It’s OKs”. At the dinner table I asked my family, “Wanna hear what happened today?” “Sure” they replied, with that questioning inflection that means not really but I’m trying to be polite. Deep into the story, as soon as I machine-gunned the phrase “Bad Addis” they burst into laughter. Actually it was more like doubled-over, belly aching, guffaws. No sympathy, just unabashed merriment at my expense. It was then that I finally saw the humor of my day, and I realized the gift my student had given me.
In that moment of laughter I was proud of myself.
I discovered in that moment of laughter that I was proud of myself, and proud of my student. I knew then that we had both tried our best, albeit in clunky unproductive ways, to communicate our needs. Both of us human, and both of us wanting something positive from the other. Me wanting him to learn, and him wanting me to acknowledge his frustration. And I also realized that we were both “Bad Addis!” for giving it our all. Even if I wasn’t a hero that day, I had put in the effort. Tomorrow would be another chance to do better.
So the next time you don’t get it right put your hands on your hips, relish that power stance, and declare that you too are “Bad Addis!” Tomorrow will come and you will have another chance to pour your heart in, just as you did today. Only you will do so having learned a little in the process.
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