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.