When I visited my parents’ house a few weeks ago, I decided to do a little “Marie Kondo-ing” in my childhood bedroom. A lot of my work from college was still there, and one thing I found was a big accordion file of letters that the seniors from my student teaching classes wrote to me at the end of the school year. Some were sweet, some were pretty neutral, but one stuck out to me.
The first time I read it, I was so angry with the student. The words How dare he? crossed my mind. What does he know? Even as I started looking through the letters, I was searching for this one because I still thought that it was obnoxious. I was feeling a little bit of that glee you get when you know you’re right about something and someone else was wrong.
Once I found the letter again, I realized that I was the one who was so, so wrong.
The letter wasn’t signed, but I had my suspicions which specific 12th-grade boy wrote it. I initially thought he was so self-righteous in trying to be philosophical by saying things like “instead show them not the key to the door, but the door so they may open it themselves.” Now as I read it, I completely understand this student’s sentiment. I wasn’t listening to my students as a naive 23-year-old. I was doing what I thought teaching was: giving information and having students repeat it back. Assigning work and expecting them to just do it, no questions asked. This letter is pretty spot on in terms of how much my beliefs in teaching philosophy have changed over the past eight years.
If I am being honest, this 2018-2019 school year has been incredibly challenging for me professionally and personally. I have more students to care for than I ever have before, and many of them seem to have more needs than in years past, or maybe I am just more in tune with them. I have experienced a lot of anxiety myself in the past year, which I think leads me to be more inclined to ask a student questions about their life, listen to their concerns, or just approach the work we’re doing with more of a sense of care.
As a middle school teacher, of course, my job is to teach content, but this year, I have been learning that teaching the whole child is truly more important than whether they can tell me what dramatic irony is. While I’m not always perfect at this, I’m trying to find ways to lean into the true needs of my students while still encouraging them to take steps toward academic progress. If one of my classes loves to talk, I try to spend some of my workshop time to build relationships and share stories about my life, while also listening to theirs. In my mind, building that rapport and trust while sacrificing some content means that I will probably get more effort from these students the next day. Sometimes this is true and sometimes it isn’t — this isn’t a perfect system, but it’s something I’m continuously working on.
Our district has been focusing a lot on social-emotional learning this year, and I have come to the realization that middle schoolers need that more. When I take time to listen to them, to give them choice, and to let them explore subjects that interest them, I know they are growing more. Teaching is a constantly-shifting practice, and I am trying to find the balance that works best for me and my students.
So to the student “not all that much younger” who wrote me this letter: thank you. Your words have helped me realize just how far I’ve come since I started teaching just eight years ago.