Some Things I Missed This Year

I am a high school teacher, and during a normal year, the May insanity is, well. . . insane. I teach in a performing arts program, and there’s a whirlwind of end-of-the-year ceremonies, performances, shows and showcases. 

In the first week in May, for example, my seniors’ parents host a literary arts banquet. We go somewhere special, eat a tasty meal together, and after dessert, all the seniors read a piece of their work. I give out awards, make a sappy speech, and we watch a slide show designed to make parents cry. We take pictures and go home satisfied that this is just the first of many good-byes before the final one.  

Around the third week in May, we have another banquet for all the arts areas. It’s a giant, swanky affair at the Hyatt Regency downtown. The seniors and their parents dress up, we eat a great meal, and after dessert, two students, chosen by the faculty, give the keynote addresses. Then, we give out the SCAPA medallions, our director gives a sappy speech, we take pictures and go home satisfied that this, too, is another step toward the final goodbye. 

In my class, we have another tradition: they sign the podium. I bring donuts for one last time, and they stand around the podium, reading what other writers have written in years before them and trying to sum up their experience in a witty epigram.

And then there’s prom. And the final play. And the final dance performance. And the final recital. And with each one of these ceremonies, it moves the seniors closer, bit by bit, to the one with pomp and circumstance, the final walk toward graduation. 

In the week before graduation, our seniors practice their walk-in, sitting in the gym in rows, memorizing their assigned seats. Our principal and class officers write their speeches, the chorus and band practice their final performance, the senior class advisor and the counselors check and recheck the diplomas, stacked up in some secret location until they’re loaded up and transported to Rupp Arena.  

And on that day, all the Lafayette seniors arrive in the back parking lot of Rupp off Manchester Street.  Most get there early, ready to line up. Faculty, armed with bobby pins to secure mortar boards, take selfies and give out high fives. Then, in the hot, dark tunnel below the arena, the students wait for their turn to walk up into the light.    

The faculty, in our black gowns and stoles, start the procession, leading our students in. There’s such a feeling of elation, a nervous, joyous chord that binds us all. When the graduating class steps onto the floor of Rupp, family and friends in the stands erupt into applause, screaming and cheering, amid screeching air horns. 

If the high school experience is about anything, it’s about traditions, the familiar unfolding of the school year. And there’s that familiar assurance that after Spring Break, we’re hurtling toward the end, accelerated with each ritual, toward the passing of another class. Another crop of citizens is turned out into the world. In a normal May, there’s an approaching finality. We know it’s coming. We see the last day as it arrives. 

For seniors, it is all held preciously in their hands. For teachers, who participate in this protracted goodbye every year, it is bittersweet, but it’s part of the rhythm of our world. The passing of another year is a comfort, an assurance that the world is tripping along as it should. 

But this year none of that has happened.

None of it. 

This Friday, under the slim overhang of the bus entrance sheltering us from a cold spring rain, I stood with the ten other SCAPA teachers and our director, masked, gloved and six feet apart, ready to see our students. Our seniors had been told we would be there to give out their graduation goods.    

The first car appeared, and then another and another. Students and their parents lined up in their cars. We brought them their packets, stood outside their windows and posed for pictures. We clapped and waved. In the rapidly dropping temperature, we passed out yard signs, senior awards, medallions, scholarship checks, and diplomas. For two hours, we cheered and laughed and cried. 

And then they drove off into the rain. 

When I think of the countless hours of practice, the rehearsals, the drafts written, the feedback given, the early mornings and the late nights that artists and performers give to their craft, this ending—all our ceremonies stripped down to a hastily- snatched picture, a wet yard sign, a tearful goodbye through a car window—fills me with grief.  

I grieve they were not just denied a graduation, but that their final build up was interrupted, their final bow never taken.  One of my seniors recently wrote, “This was not the senior year we expected, nor the graduation we had hoped for, but in the end, it isn’t the graduation ceremony that matters. It’s the friendships we made, the lessons we learned, the community we built together over the last four years.”  

I hope she’s right.

Because tonight I’m grieving. To those not involved in education, graduation and its loss may not seem profound; it’s just a long, drawn out ceremony after all. But it is much more.

It’s the opportunity to say good-bye. In a dozen different ways.

I wanted the Class of 2020 to have the chance to be bored by sappy speeches and eternal picture taking and crying parents and graduation practices and screeching air horns. I wanted them to have had the joy of enduring the May insanity, that I will never again take for granted. 

The Last Day For A While

I turned on my lights. I powered up my computer. I made coffee. Then I sprayed down the door knobs, the light switch, and wiped off all my tables.

Downstairs in the English hallway, students were singing, laughing, typical shenanigans.

It felt like a normal Friday.

My students trickled into Room 303. They were quiet.  Shayda told me her knee was flaring up. She’s a ballet dancer. “But it doesn’t matter right now anyway. Our show’s cancelled.  Dance SCAPA’s cancelled. Everything’s cancelled.”

Erica, who was sent home yesterday by the nurse with a fever, bounded in, looking fit as a fiddle. “It was just seasonal allergies, guys! I’m not going to die.”

Soon the bell rang. The PA system squeaked on, and our PE teacher Mrs. Howard led our school in its Mindful Minute, a contemplative practice we’ve been doing every morning since August.

“Breathe in. Calm,” she said. “Breathe out. Relax.” I planted my feet on the floor, put my hands on my knees, and closed my eyes.

It had been exactly one week since the first coronavirus patient had been confirmed in Kentucky:  a 27-year-old WalMart employee from a small rural town about 30 miles from Lexington, where I teach. It was a week of will-we-or-won’t-we. A week of rumors. A week of jangly energy in the cafeteria. A week of “Have you heard anything?” when teachers congregated in the halls.

Just yesterday as I drove home through downtown Lexington past Rupp Arena, it had been announced that our girls state basketball tournament, which had already started, would be suspended indefinitely. People were standing in clusters on the sidewalks, looking dazed. Girls were hugging and crying as they boarded their busses to go back to their hometowns.

Last night, we finally got an email from our superintendent: we would be out of school for three weeks. Friday would be the last day we’d be together for a while. Districts all over the state were making similar decisions about how to best serve their students, how to deliver instruction, how to keep kids engaged, safe, and fed.

I opened my eyes. A lot of my students had not come to school, but those who did were ready to go.  We spent the first 20 minutes or so discussing how surreal everything felt. I tried to answer questions as best I could, making sure they knew that everything I was saying right then might change by tomorrow.

My students are smart consumers of current events. They are politically and culturally engaged. Nobody was panicking. Nobody was crying. But I knew they were shaken a bit.  It felt like the last day of camp had arrived, and we weren’t ready for it.

“Let’s do some poetry,” Evelyn said.

“That’s the spirit.”

We started off with storyboarding Matthew Zapruder’s poem, “Birds of Texas.” Then we read a bit from Gregory Orr’s essay, “The Four Temperaments,” on the story, structure, music, and imagination of poetry. Then I opened the podium up for an anything-goes-poetry reading.

Everyone in the room shared. They read poems about grandparents and eyes and lust and death and sardines.  My colleague Mr. McCurry popped in and read a poem from his first book of poetry, which was launched today, Open Burning.

We snapped and read and clapped. We made jokes about the apocalypse.

“I won’t see you guys again until April 6. Let’s take a selfie!” I said.

“Coronavirus!” we all yelled.

“I’m already missing you guys,” Erica said.

The bell rang and it was time for them to leave. We bumped elbows, and I promised to see them on Google classroom Monday morning.

I don’t know what the next few weeks are going to look like. I don’t know how we’ll make up the lost time. I don’t know how to plan for any of this.

“This is us against the coronavirus,” our governor has reminded Kentuckians this week in his twice-daily press conferences. “We will get through this, and we will do it together.”

But my kids and I were all going our separate ways, to hunker down against the looming pandemic.  We had been doing our innocent, every-day school stuff that we love – and suddenly we are not. Maybe it’s just a brief interruption. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe a mystery of COVID-19 is that it’s not clear whether it’s causing us to pull together or pull apart. This is somewhere we’ve never been before.

If teaching has taught me anything, it has taught me the power of community. And even though Americans may pride ourselves on our independence, our rugged individualism, community is the thing that will serve us well in this moment. When we sacrifice, when we love each other, when we give grace, and when we do it together, we can thrive.

And let’s not forget about poetry – and art and dance and song and theatre. Poetry takes on new meaning as well, as we walk out into this strange territory. Poetry becomes how we stay connected. It becomes life.

“Be well. Take care of each other,” I yelled after them.

When I left school later that afternoon, the sun was shining. Yellow jonquils and purple crocuses were everywhere.  Spring had sprung, and it seemed like a normal Friday afternoon.

Except it wasn’t.

Fifteen Ways to Look at a Mentor Text

“What’s he building in there?” Tom Waits asks in a scratchy voice as haunting as it is evocative while watching his neighbor  in “What’s He Building” I often use this voice to invite kids to take a peek at the internal structure of a mentor text.

“What’s he building in there?” I thrust a highlighter and an essay under the nose of one of my students.

“You’re weird,” she says. Eye roll.

“Thank you,” I say. Curtsy.

In English class, we often read for meaning instead of looking at how the text is “built.” As they read, it’s important for students to get in the habit of asking not only what, but how as well. Why did the author make these choices and not those? How did the author settle on this framework and not another?  Students need to see every piece of writing as an artifact of someone’s decision-making.

To start this process, I hand students a copy of any text (essay, vignette, blog, etc.) and some highlighters, and I instruct them to get in there and root around. Look at how the writer built this. Dismember the sections, look for patterns and arrangements, figure out how the composition was composed. It’s a very open-ended activity, but I do offer students some questions to guide them.

Fifteen Ways of Looking at a Mentor Text 

Name: _______________________________________________________________________

Title of Mentor Text : _____________________________________________________________

Author of Mentor Text: ___________________________________________________________

Type of  Mentor Text (essay, blog, tweet, article, etc):_______________________________________

 

Directions: 

In this exercise, don’t analyze the text’s meaning, but examine how the writer “built” the text. As you read, look at how the writer puts the text together 

  1. Before you read the text, just look at it. What do you notice? (For example, Is it a long or short text? Does it have a long or short title? Are the paragraphs long or short? Are the sentences long or short? Are there subheadings? Are there pictures? Are there infographics? Charts?) 

 

After you read the text through once, go back and “deconstruct” how the author built the text. You are looking for the internal structure, kind of like looking at the walls, joists, windows, doors, or floorplan of a house.

  1. How does the writer begin the text? Do you think the beginning is effective? Why or why not? 

 

  1. How does the writer end the text? Do you think the ending is effective? Why or why not? 

 

  1. Are there facts in this text? List just a few. 

 

  1. Why do you think the writer uses these facts? (For example: to support, to explain, to inform, to convince, etc?) 

 

  1. Is there a story in this text?  In one sentence, describe the story the writer uses. 

 

  1. Why do you think the writer uses this story? (to contextualize, to give an example, to support, etc?) 

 

  1. Is there a thesis statement in this text? Is the thesis actually written in the text or does the reader have to infer it? Write what you think the thesis statement might be. 

 

  1. Are there argumentative claims in this text? List a few of the claims the writer makes. 

 

  1. Why do you think the writer uses these claims? (For example: to support, to explain, to inform, to convince, etc.?) 

 

  1. Do you notice any organizational patterns? (For example, are there “sections” or “chunks” in this text? How would you label these sections?)

 

  1. Why do you think the writer uses these patterns to organize the text? 

 

  1. Does the writer blend story, information and argument? If so, how does the writer move between story, information, and argument? 

 

  1. Does the writer use transitions to keep the reader moving from section to section? If so, why do you think the writer uses these transitions?

 

  1. How does the writer keep the reader reading? How does the writer engage you? What “craft” moves does the writer make? 

 

 

Here’s a LINK to these questions in hand-out form.

Teachers, Remember What It’s Like to Be 17

It’s Labor Day, and I’m on my back porch catching up on school work. Cup of coffee in hand, cats at my feet, I open Google Classroom and the first student assignment I read is Kailie’s analysis.

I do not actually know if the 1985 hit song “Sussudio” by English musician Phil Collins is a “good” or “bad” song. I am forever blinded by the light of emotional attachment, with this track being one my dad played for me from a very young age. Which is odd in itself– my father, who cringes at the sound of Wham! and spent his 1980s buried in Van Halen cassettes, is a fervent appreciator of “Sussudio.”

In one raw, unfiltered moment of memory, my senior year comes rushing back to me. My life-long friend Leslie and I are in her living room, MTV on full blast, and we are Molly Ringwald-jump-dancing and scream-singing, “I feel so good if I just say the word, su-su-sussudio.”

Leslie and I thought ourselves some edgy sorts because we loved Duran Duran, The Clash, and Flock of Seagulls. So ardent was our identification with these reckless, poppy 80s Brits, that if Sting had been our English teacher, we would have been wet-bus-stop-waiting every day.

But there’s something more than just the memory of a song. I remember the joy and sorrow that marked so much of high school. I remember being free and being scared. Wanting to grow up and wanting to stay small.

Leslie and I had lost one parent each- my father to leukemia in ’82 and her mother to breast cancer in ’83. As Cold War babies, we knew the world was an uncertain place. We were sick of high school with all its petty rules, but scared to death about what came next.

Even though every adult in our life was telling us to think about the future, we wisely knew The Moment was to be savored. So there we were, just for the moment, delirious, sweaty, out of breath, and that song – we never had any idea about who or what Sussido was – told us if we’d just say the word, we would feel so good. Such fizzy pink pop. Such mindlessness. It didn’t matter. It felt good to be young and alive.

I tell every first-year teacher this: Teaching high school is a non-stop memory of your own adolescent pain.  Which is why, principals, when you’re hiring new teachers, instead of asking what John Maxwell quote best exemplifies their classroom management style, ask this question: do you remember what it’s like to be 17?

Do you remember how everyone told you to just be yourself, but you didn’t have any idea who or what that was? How every inspirational speaker they drug us into the gym to listen to told us to be unique and different when all we wanted to do was to blend in enough to not get singled out for anything?

Do you remember what it was like not to understand polynomials but everyone else seemed to be getting it, so why raise your hand?  Do you remember avoiding the loud girls in the hall because they might single you out, to make fun of your hair, your shoes, your teeth?

Do you remember what it was like to have every adult telling you the decisions you made in the next two years would determine the rest of your life? That if you didn’t make the right decision, you’d be screwed. If you didn’t go to college, you couldn’t get a good job. If you didn’t get a good job, you wouldn’t have a family. If you didn’t have a family, you’d end up hustling aluminum cans at the scrap yard.

Do you remember what it was like to no longer be a child, but not yet an adult? How one moment you wanted to crawl back into your bedroom and play with action figures and the next moment you were taking the ACT and filling out college applications? Leaving your parents? Leaving your childhood?

I’m reminded again that teaching is dependent on our ability to remember the answers to these questions. So, thank you, Kailie, for taking me back and helping me remember what it’s like to be standing on the edge of the rest of your life, thinking every decision is life or death. I wish I could go back and tell my 17-year-old self that everything’s going to be okay, but I can do the next best thing: I can extend that grace to my students. I can make my classroom a safe place to feel free and to feel scared. I can make writing an exercise of self-discovery and solace. I can act with wisdom when my students act like five-year-olds one minute and thirty-year-olds the next.

That we recognize ourselves in our students is invaluable. When they remind us of who we once were and who we are now, we can reach out again, through joy and pain, and help each other along the path. We must allow them to see us, not as authorities on life, but fellow travelers on this journey. Treat them with the same kindnesses with which we wish some wise teacher would have treated us. Strive every day to remember what it’s like to sit in that cramped school desk.

 

 

Working Our C.O.R.E

At the beginning of each school year, I spend one full class period explaining how my classroom works. Logistics like bathroom passes, cell phone use, make-up work, Chromebook usage, and so on. However, after I lay down the operational parameters of Room 303, I want them to wrangle with some group norms that will really make this class sing.

A word about what I teach:  my writing classes operate like writing studios populated by working writers. Because my students are working both independently and interdependently in this class, establishing group norms is important. Writers can be very focused on their own work to the exclusion of anyone else, but in a cooperative learning environment, such as a writing community, setting base line expectations and boundaries is critical.

Each year the class comes up with a list of expectations that every member of the class, including me, should strive to emulate. This year, after listing all the brainstormed behaviors, expectations, and descriptors on the board, it was time to boil the list down to a few essentials.  After a lot of discussion and deliberation, the class circled around four adjectives:  open minded, empathetic, respectful, and considerate.  As the class negotiated to fit the rest of their descriptions under one of these four umbrella terms, one student looked up and said, “Hey, it spells CORE. That’s our acronym.”

Indeed, it was.

C.O.R.E. has become our group norm for this academic year, and I’d like to discuss what each of these looks like in our writing class.

Considerate: Being considerate means being thoughtful, concerned, and mindful of others. This behavior is particularly important in a writing workshop, where we are working with sensitive, often personal, subjects written by young writers. Under this term, my students listed “be kind,” “be nice,” “be a good friend,” and “help others.” Other students suggested no gossiping, no name calling, no back stabbing could go under this category. While being considerate includes compassion towards others, it also means to practice self-consideration or self-compassion. So many young writers tend to preface their work with apologies, i.e., this is awful, I’m stupid, I’m a horrible writer, this is trash. This behavior is the same as name calling, only directed at yourself. Being considerate of one’s self and others contributes to the “we are all in this together” connection that is the cornerstone of all functional, thriving communities.

Open-minded:  This was a dark horse norm I didn’t see coming, but students listed things like, “check your bias” and “seek to understand other’s viewpoints.”  Several students listed behaviors important to writers: “listen to other’s ideas,” “be open to new ideas” and “be approachable during workshop.” Of course, the real test of this norm will be when a student is asked to give feedback on, for example, an essay that argues for a position he doesn’t agree with. He must learn to respond to the writing itself and not to his opposition of the ideas expressed. In a writing workshop, it’s imperative that students are open-minded enough to consider an argument they don’t agree with and still be able to give the writer good feedback on her technique, craft, and form. I also want the student who is on the receiving end of feedback to be open minded, weighing and considering all the feedback even though she’s the final arbiter of her work.

Respectful:  In the last ten years of using group norms, I can’t remember a single class that didn’t include this word.  It is absolutely vital in any classroom.  Under this word, students listed behaviors such as “If you listen to music, wear headphones,” “If you want to conference with another student, go out into the hall,” and “Don’t disturb other people.” But they also listed things like “turn your drafts in on time,” as well as cleaning up after themselves as a way of showing respect to each other. Another angle of respect that made it on the big list was “what’s written in Room 303, stays in Room 303,” and “if it’s not your story, don’t tell it.” Confidentiality is an essential part of respecting one another enough to maintain a vault of safety around the stories we tell each other. Self-respect is also a necessary part of this norm; each student must respect her contribution to the group and recognize that by not participating she’s essentially disrespecting the group by withholding her own unique gifts and viewpoints.

Empathetic: We had a fairly robust conversation about including empathetic after we already had respectful and considerate on the list, but ultimately we decided these descriptors were indeed different things. The ability to feel other people’s emotions and to imagine what someone else might be feeling is especially important as you want each member of the community to feel connected emotionally to one another. Empathy is also important in order to imagine what another person is thinking in order to give them feedback on a creative project. To give helpful feedback, you want to attempt to understand what the author or poet was attempting to do. You want to strive to see what the writer sees in order to give him feedback he can use to improve the original vision he had for the piece of writing.

C.O.R.E. may not work for your class, but the activity of students arriving at norms that set social and emotional boundaries for the whole group creates investment and community when you need it during those uncomfortable and sometimes awkward first days of school.

 

Teaching is Relentless; Be Extra

Last year I took four of my high school students to a nearby middle school to talk about writing. We had a great time, and on the way home, they started talking about new teachers in our school.

“It’s always an interesting social experiment when you get a brand-new teacher,” said Michael. “You can just see them wear out before your eyes.”

“Yes, yes!” they all chimed in.

I laughed.  “Oh surely not. They’re young. They have boundless energy.”

“No, it’s not like that. They’re enthusiastic up to a point in the semester—” Katrin said.

“—and then they just give up,” David said.

“Do you mean the kids are mean to them?” I asked.

“No, it’s not even that,” Jenna said. “They just give up.”

“They literally break down by degrees,” said Katrin.

As I return for my 24thyear, I think about all the new teachers who will be entering the classroom for the first time.  Lots of optimism, nervous anticipation, maybe a little dread. You’ve prepared your plans, you’ve arranged your room. What is waiting for you, however, is something you cannot possibly plan for, arrange, or anticipate. The first year of teaching is like the first crush, the first heartache, the first roller coaster, the first house fire all wrapped up into one.

Managing a classroom of teenagers for the first time is a difficult thing; managing a class of teenagers in order for them to learn something for the first time is on the dismantling-a-bomb-blindfolded-with-one-hand level of difficulty. You don’t learn how to do this well your first year. Or even your second year. To be honest, I’m still learning.

Many people who aren’t teachers don’t know what it takes to motivate a mob of disaffected fourteen-year-olds. Most people might think we just stand up and deliver some kind of Remember the Titans speech and everyone falls out on the floor and starts learning. When, in fact, it’s more like preparing, then delivering six 50-minute interactive sales presentations back-to-back with 30 + clients in each session, some openly hostile and disruptive.  And you have to convince them to trust you, follow you, to buy what you’re selling. That’s only the first day of the first week. You’ve got 174 more. It’s an unscripted, non-stop, relentless performance of exaggerated proportions.

But here’s what veteran teachers know:  teaching is overwhelming and can, if you let it, overwhelm you. It can bury you. And your students can watch as you collapse.

Or you can be extra.

Extra is one of those words that’s been around the teen smack vernacular for some time now, but doesn’t seem to have abated in usefulness. On Urban Dictionary, my favorite definition (as posted by Performingfartist ) is “Doing the absolute damn most. For no reason.”

I like this definition very much.

When you look at veteran teachers, you have to think: what’s their secret? How have they hung on so long? And I think the answer is in their ability to be mind-bendingly, odds-defyingly EXTRA.

Good teachers are the absolute damn most.  All the time. In your face. Good teachers are sold out to knowledge. They are stoked about the path. They love to learn, and they want their students to love to learn as well.

Can’t understand a concept the first time it’s explained? Extra breaks it down, uses a different approach. Maybe a third or fourth time. With hand puppets. Extra reads a new book over the weekend and can’t wait to tell her students about it. Extra high fives the struggling. Extra learns how to pronounce all the names correctly. Extra knows your mom has chemotherapy this week. Extra collaborates with other teachers, reads professional books, always strives to get better at teaching.

I’m not saying new teachers should do extra things, like stay at school until midnight or spend all weekend lesson planning. That’s madness. I’m saying whatever dream led you to chase this profession, major on that. Social change, writing, reading, community, empowerment, whatever – be that thing.

Extra is a sense of humor, a deep, abiding love for students, a clear-eyed sincerity and earnestness that builds trust. Extra uses tech or gaming or poetry or music. Extra is any means necessary. Extra is every child, every day.

When I think about my colleagues, especially the veterans who have thrived and survived in this profession, it’s because they have fun at their job. They are #ALLIN. My veteran colleagues at Lafayette (Exhibit A: Our science department) break out in song in the middle of class, bring their guitar to class, wear funny hats, make up crazy mnemonics to help students remember content.

In Teachers (1984) my favorite teacher movie, (and by favorite, I mean, most ridiculous), the best teacher in the whole school is a mental patient who is mistaken for the history teacher substitute and spends the whole movie pretending to be George Washington.  How much would you learn about the Revolutionary War if you were being taught by someone who literally believed he was George Washington?

So here’s my Remember The Titans speech for new teachers:   You will get through it.  This, too, shall pass. But don’t give up. Don’t dissolve, wilt, or crumble. Go out with other teachers. Find a tightly-knit, sacred support group where you feel safe.  Wail and scream over iced coffee or buckets of beer if that’s your thing, then get up the next morning, brush your teeth and get after it. Get crazy after it. Get so extra after it that you become the teacher who is the absolute most.

For the best reason ever.

 

 

To See Each of My Students

Within the next few weeks, most of America’s teachers will return to their classrooms and attempt to do this increasingly difficult job of teaching young people to think. Right now, many of us are printing our rosters and figuring out what non-lame opening day activity will welcome everyone to step inside.

As I’ve been thinking about returning to school, a post by one of my former students showed up in my Facebook memories. Several years ago, she had thanked me and two other teachers who she said “believed in me when I was being self destructive and was not at all doing what was best for me.”  She said we had encouraged her until she “started to make a future for myself.” It was–as my friend Elizabeth phrases it–a  teacher paycheck. I love getting those.

Her post reminded me that one of our jobs as high school teachers is to not just see the teenager sitting (sulking, beaming, pouting, bouncing, slouching) in my classroom. We also must see an adult in the process of becoming. If we have the eyes to see it, we can envision that future for all our students.

The ability to see the successful adult inside the petulant teen is not something they teach you in teacher college. Perhaps they teach that in seminary. Some days are harder than others to love the kid who is spitting in your face. In most cases, parents can do this with ease – wipe the spit off and love their children over the top of insolence, but they’ve got DNA and familial fuzzies on their side.  Teachers? Not as much.  In my teaching career, I feel like I have not done a great job with this, even though I know that each year this is my number one goal:  to see each of my students as an individual. Really, really see them. Not just as a mass of faces, as a teen stereotype, as a data point, but as a real living, breathing, hoping, fearing human.

Here are a few ways I can do that:

  • Do the inner work necessary to be a calm, non-reactive presence in the classroom. Despite what the inspirational Pinterest posters might have you believe, we teachers are mere mortals with petty egos, who experience fear, shame, and pride just like our students. When a student lashes out at us, our first instinct might be to lash right back. Or to belittle them. Or to silence and exclude them. But all of these responses come from our ego, from our fears. If I feel targeted, triggered, angered to the point of lashing out, I need to ask myself where this reaction is coming from. We must be the adult in the room, not by virtue of our chronological age, but by maturity and equanimity, the one that responds with a calm, kind word formed in love and grace.
  • Carve out a distinctive, personal connection with every kid on your roster. This is difficult when you see 150 kids a day, but it is so important to know our kids beyond the beginning of the year interest inventory. Ask questions about their lives, their families, their neighborhoods. Tap into their passions, get curious about their delights, their past times. Challenge yourself to curate one or two positive facts about every student on your roster and then capitalize on those. Be genuine in this practice as students know when a teacher fakes concern for self-interest. If your life-work balance permits, go see your students on the stage, on the court, on the field. If your daily schedule permits, pop into their math class where they are a whiz-kid and watch them shine. See them in different environments to know them completely.
  • Create an inclusive classroom that celebrates each student’s gifts, community, heritage, diversity. This practice too is about seeing the student, not as a little cog in the big wheel of your classroom, but as a unique person contributing with other unique people to form a community of learning. This will feel impossible on a Friday before a holiday, but if you prioritize learning and its power, plus the equal access that all students have to this power, the community will happen.
  • Believe in your students so much, they begin to believe in themselves. See their potential so clearly that they can see it too. My students are already thinkers, readers and writers, but they are not yet the kinds of thinkers, readers, writers that they can become. As Anne Lamott says, “We begin to find and become ourselves when we notice how we are already found, already truly, entirely, wildly, messily, marvelously who we were born to be.” (Oprah Magazine, 2012)
  • Practice compassion. I find it helpful to remember those who showed me grace when I was a squirrelly, self-absorbed little flibber-di-jibbet teen. I remember my teachers, my band directors, my older female neighbors, my Aunt Tilly and Auntie Adele indulging me when I jabbered on self-importantly about this or that. When I sulked, I remember they encouraged me with their laughter, their interest, their genuine questions. When I am compassionate toward my students, through the legacy lens of the gifts my elders have given me, I can see them, not just as they really are, but who they are meant to be as well.

Right now, I’ve just had a leisurely second cup of coffee, sitting on the back porch, listening to the birds chirp and the bees buzz. I’m as chill and as magnanimous as I will ever be. But that’s because I slept until 9 am. And the lunch-nap potential of my day is promising. In ten days, all that will change. I’ll be getting up at 5 am and I’ll be “on” from 7 am until around 4pm, then I’ll drive home and work another hour or two after dinner on school things. Teachers become harried and stressed, strung out and taxed by myriad burdens.

I want to remember this: my number one goal is to treat each student in my classroom with humanity, with dignity, with respect, no matter how hectic the year becomes. To see them, as they are now, and as they will be in their most successful future. And be satisfied when I go home at night that I had a small part in that success.