So I was walking my dog the other day. We were soaking up the view as we strolled along the shores of Lake Erie. I was enveloped in a podcast episode and Holly’s little beagle ears were flapping in the lakeshore breeze. We were beboppin’ along, happy as can be, minding our own business. I didn’t think a thing of it when Holly drifted off the path to sniff around under a park bench. She squatted but nothing happened. The vet says this is a manipulative ploy to elongate our time together…go figure. Still, on this day, I didn’t mind the extra stop. We were in no rush, with nowhere to be for hours and it was a beautiful morning.

As Holly wrapped up her investigation under the park bench, we returned to the walking path and I noticed an older woman walking toward us. She made direct eye contact with me and looked like she wanted to say something. We slowed and I greeted her with “Good morning”. Her response was a head tilt and scrunched nose. I removed an earbud. She said, “Did your dog just poop under that bench?” 

“No! Of course not,” I replied, astounded and instantly feeling defensive. 

“Oh, it looked like she did,” Miss Poop Patrol said. 

I may be a polished and polite 45 year old woman, but I teach middle schoolers and live with two teenage daughters. I am not a stranger to snide comments rolling through my head; they do so with ease. I thought of a million responses…they just came too late. In the moment, my words took the high road because I was feeling as though I was in big trouble with Poop Patrol. I pulled a bag from my pocket as proof of preparedness and countered, “Don’t worry. I have a bag.” I was at least mindful enough to accompany my weak comeback with a passive-aggressive eye roll and audible huff. 

For the remainder of the walk, I was in conversation with myself: What am I, twelve? Heck–I’d still be offended if that woman would have stopped and questioned my 17 yr. old the way she did me. Did I mention WE were minding our own business? Nope, age didn’t matter. Even if I were 12, no one deserves to be assumed guilty. It feels icky. 

Right or wrong, justified or not, this encounter left me feeling misunderstood and defensive. It reminded me of a quote from Maya Angelo: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Let’s not over-analyze the reasons why I am still upset by this encounter a full week and 3 days later (#InsecuritiesAfter40). But let’s do pause and think about what my reaction says about how our actions and words affect other people–no matter their age–and what that might mean for us as teachers. 

This is a truth; I’ve encountered it as a teacher. You can see it, too. Just venture into the hallway. Stop. Listen there. Take it all in. Think about it. And don’t be surprised when you realize all the judgements–good and bad–can all be traced back to one common factor: how the teacher makes students feel when they are in class. Is the teacher empathetic? Is the teacher a good role model? Is the teacher reasonable? Is the teacher clear about why things are they way the are? Is there room for risk-taking? Failure? Is there a chance to be successful today even if students blew it yesterday? You might hear some talk about assignments or upcoming projects. You might even delight in an academic exchange of words and feel like patting yourself on the back. But mostly, you will hear how kids are feeling. And when you hear that, you’re gathering what is probably the most important information you can have to be successful as their teacher. So, please. Take time to gather this social/emotional information. And in the age of performance data gathering, data analysis, and “diving deep” into academic data, tread lightly, my friends. What data do you need to inform your instructional practice? What data do you need to ignore so that you don’t stereotype how the student will perform in your class before he or she even has a chance to show you? Remember,

It’s not what you teach that students will remember most. It is how you make them feel. 

I’ve encountered this truth as a student. One of the biggest reasons I became a teacher was because I was fortunate to have teachers in my history that I adored; I wanted to become just like them. I wanted to have reasonable but challenging expectations. I wanted to open doors to new knowledge and help people discover new things about themselves and about the world. I also knew what kind of teacher I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want to make my students fear walking through the doorway because of my strict policies that made them afraid to move left or right. I didn’t want them to feel judged when, no matter how hard I tried, they just couldn’t seem to “get it”. I didn’t want them to feel pitted against their peers or in competition. I knew exactly the kind of teacher I wanted to be. I wanted them to feel valued, free to explore, gain confidence, take risks, and play to their strengths. Because…

It’s not what you teach that students will remember most. It is how you make them feel. 

Finally, I’ve encountered this truth as a parent. My husband and I are both educators, and had several years of teaching experience under our belts before we became parents. We knew school. We knew what to expect. We had a positive attitude. We were prepared. Our kids were prepared. And we thought we knew how school would look for them. We didn’t. And there was nothing more heartbreaking than seeing our own children go through phases where they were completely turned off by school. They didn’t want to go because of how school made them feel. They felt disciplined all day; they felt like a number; they felt teachers did not know them as people. Believe me, it was a hard-hitting professional slam to witness system failure when it mattered most. And yet even during the phases where our kids hated school, there was always one saving grace. There was always one period of the day that wasn’t so bad, because someone made them feel they could persevere. And that became the one thing that motivated the results of our best attempts at parenting to make it out the door and take their places in the classroom. 

As society scrambles to respond to the ever-changing needs of our youngest generations, let’s not wait to create positive encounters within the school walls.  A teacher can never go wrong with considering the kind of encounters they create in their classrooms. Though it may be tempting, resist assuming that you have to be on Poop Patrol. Try expecting kids to be at their best until they prove otherwise. And when they do prove to be in need of redirection or tough love, realize you will never know exactly where they are coming from. You can only try to be empathetic and discipline while preserving their dignity. I’ll repeat it one last time for emphasis.  It’s not what you teach that students will remember most. It is how you make them feel. No matter our age, we don’t want to feel pre-judged, defensive or invisible. We want to feel safe, valued, and heard.

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