Play Dough

Listen. I don’t care what has happened so far. What I do care about is that this is taken care of at her next school. In my shop if someone says they’re going to take care of something, they do it, or else. It’s just the way things get done and this didn’t get done. And I’ve asked for it 5 times. It’s incompetent.

The early morning meeting was heating. A visibly agitated father raised his voice, somewhat unexpectedly (his wife was a colleague). His irritation stunned us all into silence. A cramped, windowless, stuffy vice principal’s office on the second-last day of school. His daughter a beloved student for whom I’d worked so hard that year, who’d shown steady growth but still had some struggles. And an expectation that I thought had been met, but.

That meeting was six years ago now, but I can still sit myself down in that office, can still hear his words, can recall the pit in my stomach and the series of emails I sent in reply – some in direct response to his concerns, others to try to deflect blame or limit my vulnerability. Resolving it consumed my days (and nights, sadly) as I vacillated between resentment, self-doubt, and pity. My balloon had unmercifully and relentlessly been burst.

This is an unforgiving and thankless profession. We make ourselves vulnerable and the stories we tell ourselves cut to the core. Our persona and our identity as teachers is a tender balloon, and on some days everyone we see is brandishing a shiny pin.

Six years have passed and I’m (mostly) over it. Feelings of doubt that come with having let someone down are persistent and sneaky, resurfacing at the worst possible times (it’s always the worst possible times).

Now, it’s time to rethink the metaphor. Not a balloon, a fragile, disposable piece of rubber that can be poked and discarded. Instead, a lumpy, soft, multi-colored, malleable chunk of play dough – that can be shaped, prodded, molded into something better. It’s not always pretty, but it exists and endures, and it’s still there, even after harsh words, minor quakes, or windowless meetings. The work we do is an uneven, misshapen, playful dumpling, and it’s inevitable that someone will come along and give it a poke. But the dough abides.

Published by Radutti

Teaching in Ha Noi, screwing things up daily but surviving to write about it. ...everything's perfectly all right now. We're fine. We're all fine here now, thank you. How are you?

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  1. Welcome to slicing! What a fabulous first slice of the month! There is real power in the metaphors we use to think about our teaching lives and I love the way yours has changed from a fragile balloon to that lumpy play dough that persists. It may not be glamorous but it does endure! This is such a powerful reflection, too, on how we respond to a challenge early in our careers–deflecting blame, shame, so much agitation–and how we might be more measured, more understanding, more insightful later in our careers.


  2. Thanks for writing for all of us in the profession. Thinking of ourselves as malleable and not erasable is what will keep us getting up gracefully each time. I hope to hear more about what’s shaping your play dough in the next month.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh haven’t we all had that moment or even moments that we try to erase but never really go away. The parent who blindsides at conferences, the parent who bullies us into believing we are worthless, the parent who despite our blood, sweat and tears, does not see our efforts and wants more. Thank you for sharing such a perfect image of how it feels to experience these things and putting a more positive spin on those negative feelings.


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