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This is What Teachers Must Remember Most About Their Students

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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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10 thoughts on “This is What Teachers Must Remember Most About Their Students

  1. Isn’t ironic in a time when kids need love and compassion most in their lives, the stress teachers feel to perform academically is at an all time high! I believe in a strong academic base, but never in compromising the connections with students! Let’s compare it to money…money should never come before kindness. I graduated in May with a degree in Elementary Education, unfortunately I did not get hired because I am a first year teacher and do not have “Experience”, but I am working in a school setting with preschoolers and I see how the teachers and PARENTS are struggling with the teacher/child relationship. I am reconsidering why I went back to school for teaching. This is not what I signed up for. I wanted to make a difference in children’s lives and I’m not sure I can do that and still make the test scores.

    • Amy, I hope that in time you will find a niche in education where you can make that difference you so dearly want to make. Hang in there- it doesn’t get easier necessarily but you will in time see that the love and compassion you have to offer will be exactly what your students need. Follow your heart, my friend. Although the pressure is there, be true to your calling and realize that you are the one on the front lines. At the end of the day, it’s what YOU choose to do that really matters.

  2. Dear Teacher Down The Hall –

    Your letter to counselors is SO so coincidental because it was just today that I found your first post, to the new teacher, and I shared it on FB as well as on my blog … then I see this … another beautiful post, but this time to us.

    Thank you for your eloquence and your deep empathy for the struggles behind our students’ stories. Every single thing that you said is spot on. We just don’t know, do we? And really, how much science are students soaking in when they’re not sure they’re going to get dinner? Or if mom will be back home. Or if dad will let her in if she is. Or worse, if you can imagine. Because sometimes their little lives are worse than you can even imagine. And teachers are on the front lines and have such an amazing opportunity to positively influence their broken little worlds.

    So while it may sound trite, kindness truly is the real global warming. And love does make the world go ’round. And when we elevate empathy, glorious things happen to our school culture and climate.

    Don’t worry; it’s not all about simply singing kum-ba-yah and eating bon bons … it’s about being there on the front lines, alongside of you, and behind you, to support and to cheer, to encourage, to listen, and to understand, to help connect and to give comfort, not only for students but also for each other.

    Keep up the heart work,

    The Counselor at the Corner on Character

    • Thanks so very much for those kindest of words! I am very grateful that this letter made a connection with the very important work you do as a counselor! Thank you as well for your letter to me- made my heart smile! Keep on keeping on!

  3. No matter what we say, or write, there will always be one thing we cannot cover! But, the core of the matter has to be, to love God, and to love people. that is what He told us to do. I have been a pastor’s wife for many, long years and heard tragic stories too. But, hope is a gift. These dear young people, coming to school under such dire situations, must have hope held out to them that this awful story can stop-there, with them. Despite what they have lived through, hope holds a light to them that their life can be different. And, who spends more time with them, over all, than the teacher. You could feed them all their meals, give them money for coming to school, have a clothing room-all kinds of things, but, they are just things. Loving hope and understanding touches the soul. Teachers have a hard job-but, when it is more than a pay cheque-when it is a call to make a difference, the political bottom line of test scores will be long forgotten by students, but the one who loved them enough to know their name and care about them, never will be!

  4. I am in my 3rd year of teaching Kindergarten and am already feeling overwhelmed. With a class of 22 children and no support, I feel as if too much is expected a classroom teacher. My seasoned peers talk of the days when they had para support to do the work that now fills my days; cutting papers, laminating, stuffing home-school folders, keeping up the website, etc… By the time I get to actual lesson planning, I am too tired to make my lessons great. I am also expected to test these children (individually) while trying to keep 21 others productive and out of trouble. They are stressed and misbehaving and my children with severe behavior issues are starting to revert because of my inability to focus on them. I have seriously thought of leaving this job I love so much. I have also tried desperately to talk my son out of wanting to be a teacher. It makes me sad.

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