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The One Thing Teachers Must Remember About Students

As much as I am passionate about what I teach, I am more passionate about the people I teach. I am more interested that they are content and happy -- that they are not under undue duress or strain; what is the point of spouting out facts and figures, as important as they might be, if the students' heart is not in it? If their belly is empty?
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Dear Counselor Down the Hall:

In December, before the busy rush of Christmas, before the calm of early January (after the seasonal chaos), before the press of semester changes and reporting periods and term-end assessments and all that entails: I wrote a letter. My letter was written to a young teacher and it was concerning what students remember most about teachers. I said in that letter that I believe students will remember mostly that we cared for them. They will remember us for our empathy and consideration. They'll remember us for all the little and big ways in which we've touched their lives. Most of all, I urged teachers everywhere to consider their calling to 'being' over the compulsion to constantly 'do' all the time. For I believe that this work of teaching is a calling -- not a job. As such, I said in that letter that teachers who were available, kind, compassionate, transparent, real, and thoughtful -- teachers who were true to themselves- were the kinds of teachers we need more of in this world.

Since that quiet evening in December, when I tapped that letter out on a wobbly keyboard in my den, that same letter has been viewed by teachers and educators all over the world. Indeed, I have been completely humbled with the response. Humility has not been hard to manage because dozens of people found a spelling mistake in the letter right off the bat. We don't look passed the mistakes of our students -- we look past them. Who knew? What has really touched me as I have read the comments on this letter are the stories that have been shared. Stories are so powerful -- they touch our lives in memorable ways. I feel blessed for having read so many peoples' stories. I have also felt a sincere desire to connect with the people behind the comments written to me on my blog. One of those comments was from you- the counselor down the hall. Permit me to reiterate what you said to me in that letter:

It may be what students will remember most, however being authentic and caring in today's classroom is not enough for the teacher to keep their job. I'm in a 95%+ high poverty school. Many of my students live in substandard housing (shelters, their cars, garages, even rest stops). Many are hungry, stressed, sad, angry. Many are not ready to learn or to access what their teachers have to offer because their basic needs are not being met. Common Core Standards are holding teachers accountable for learners' growth and meeting benchmarks. That's where all the focus is, if you want to stay employed as a teacher today. Oft times, children with significant and sometimes severe behavioral problems are included in general education settings but with no additional supports. The young teacher down the hall is carrying stress that experienced, seasoned teachers who've been in the field for years did not contend with in the beginning of their careers. Of course, being patient, kind and available to students is paramount, but we have to be forgiving and offer more support to teachers in the trenches. Platitudes on what students will remember most are not enough.

From the counselor down the hall

I appreciate your thoughtful, careful response. I am really trying to listen hard to what you are saying -- I am attempting to understand what that would be like to have those particular pressures weighing down on me, as do you -- to be teaching students facing such overwhelming obstacles. You have incredible insight into the students you teach and counsel, and I applaud your tireless work. Know that what you do matters. Incredibly.

You allude to the fact that being patient, kind and available are not enough to make up for what is missing in supports for our young teachers just starting out: I agree. We need more supports and quickly. This need to support one another is something I feel with a sense of urgency. I hear your frustration, I hear your cry for help. But I do feel that there is still possibility for our students living in the direst of circumstances and that possibility is found in offering a curriculum of caring. Considering the lack of supports our young teachers in the trenches are dealing with, caring must begin with us -- the seasoned teachers. And from there, it will be felt in waves as if radiating from a light source.

I still hold out hope that what students need from us most is care: relationship, empathy, time and love. And I also believe that this curriculum of care -- this curriculum of the heart can be infused in our everyday classroom experience no matter how challenging that situation might be.

When I think of students dealing with issues of poverty, hunger, and stress brought on by many varied causes, I think we'd both agree that these are the students who need this curriculum of care the most urgently. These are the students who need teachers like you -- teachers who can see through to the heart of the matter -- that know what their students are up against and can meet them where they are at. Whom students need most are teachers that understand: students bring their best selves to school with them everyday. The 'self' that left the house that morning without breakfast on the table (if there is indeed a table). The 'self' that left the house that morning having just watched mom get pinned to the wall by dad. The 'self' that got on the bus that morning wondering if anyone is even going to be there for them when they get home. Because life is that unpredictable. And that scary. So when I consider the teachers teaching students for whom life is lived in such fragile, difficult worlds, I think that those are the teachers given one of life's greatest challenges, to be sure. For these teachers are teaching students who crave the security of the human touch. Because students want to feel safe. Want to feel cared for. Because students need the basic necessities of life, as you have indicated- and they need them before literacy and numeracy goals are ever going to be their central preoccupation.

It's about the curriculum of the heart-- first and foremost. That's what lays the foundation for the rest.

I would be remiss if I failed to speak to our responsibility as educators to teach. I am no idler in my own calling to teach, often taking weekends and evenings to work in quiet classrooms in a vacant school, preparing lessons. But as much as I love teaching language arts, social studies, science and math (among other areas of inquiry) to my young group of learners, I am constantly cognizant of these same students' readiness to learn- along with the more pressing realities of their everyday lives. I get that sense you might be compelled in similar ways. I am also aware that everyday life issues sometimes are more pressing an area of need than is core curriculum. I am aware that, to the child who hasn't eaten breakfast, teaching math concepts is not really going to deliver. Nor is a guided reading lesson the salve for an injury that inflicts the soul.

I am aware. For I read the room constantly to see if there is anything more pressing, any issue of greater concern that might need more attention than the subject of the hour. For as much as I am passionate about what I teach, I am more passionate about the people I teach. I am more interested that they are content and happy -- that they are not under undue duress or strain; what is the point of spouting out facts and figures, as important as they might be, if the students' heart is not in it? If their belly is empty? If their mind is consumed with images they cannot erase? What is the point of pushing through lessons if what the students are needing in the moment is a caring, attentive ear? I believe that we as teachers know this to be true with every fiber of our being. We must remain true to our students and to our original calling.

What matters to the students is how we care.

And what our students need above all is empathic, devoted teachers like you that know when to teach -- and know when to listen. Who realize that curriculum from the heart is more influential than any core curriculum can ever hope to offer. And while platitudes on what students need might not be enough to change the system, it has been enough to change the hearts of teachers.

One person at a time.

All the best my friend,

The Teacher Down the Hall


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