Every year (except for last year), I’ve written an “end-of-the-year” recap of what I learned as a teacher. It’s a way for me to process and close the year and hold close what set this year apart from the others. And I know what the history books will say set this year apart – obviously shutting down the end of the year due to COVID. But I’m tired of beating that dead horse, and that’s not what I want to remember most about this year and this class.
This class – as I told them at our last Zoom meeting of the year – successfully earned the place of my new most favorite class. It’s something you can’t predict or fabricate or make up – it often has to do with that specific mix of students and teacher where you click in a special way.
But I also think it had to do with a few other things that I learned this year like never before.
The first was vulnerability.
Over the past couple of years, I have been learning the art of teaching, modeling, and guiding appropriate vulnerability with my class – but the students have to be willing to go there themselves. Last year’s students were often reluctant to share anything and so our class meetings were often way too quiet. We did have one meeting where they shared more vulnerable things which I was proud of them for, but they did not often want to go there.
And that’s okay. If I’ve learned anything about vulnerability, it’s that you have to have a solid foundation of trust for those with whom you’re sharing. And I think I know why they didn’t completely have that last year.
But this year. This year, they were so willing to trust each other and me.
I did start off the year with a few specific tools in my belt, which I think helped set us in the right direction.
- A set of classroom principles that I created last summer and put on a poster for us right by the door. We went over these at the beginning of the year and talked about how they were the intentions for all we would do as a classroom family – one of which I think we truly embraced more than the others: “Always take the opportunity to be more compassionate than we feel, for we are all fighting a hard battle.”
- A schoolwide book study on Dare to Lead by Brené I devoured the book and its principles because I saw how hungry my students and I were for that kind of leadership – the kind of leadership that shows up for hard things and approaches them with courage, kindness, and authenticity.
One of my favorite quotes from the book is, “Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior.”
In the teacher world, that means we must attend to social-emotional learning first before any academic learning can take place. And we do that with our morning meetings.
3. Morning meetings are always something I’ve been taught to value as a teacher (thanks to my fabulous mentor teacher!), but I’ve learned to get better at them over the years. In fact, at the beginning of this year, I went to a class on them – and they addressed them as circles, both proactive and restorative circles.
And I started off the year with an activity they suggested – “If you really knew me …” This is based on the research that suggests that if you know at least 20+ facts about a person, you are less likely to bully them. So each morning at our morning meeting circle for the first 20 days, I asked a question that started with “If you really knew me, you’d know that …”
The questions started out surface-level such as, “my favorite candy is …” and “my favorite show to watch is …” But then they gradually went deeper with questions such as, “I get stressed when …” “I worry about …” and “my biggest fear is …” Students were allowed to pass if they really wanted to, but were encouraged to share the more comfortable they were with the class.
And wow, were these kids eager to share. And it was tough to hear sometimes. But so valuable as we started to build trust with one another.
In January, we hit a bit of a rough patch and had to do a “restorative circle” where we talked through some not-nice stuff that had been happening. And then the floodgates started opening wide – with students sharing pretty deep things with the class – all things that helped us understand one another better. We were all probably crying by the end of it.
But afterwards, the most beautiful thing happened – they started writing letters – to themselves and each other. Letters giving themselves pep talks. Letters building others up. Letters asking for forgiveness from others for judging them without really knowing them.
I could not have predicted that would happen – nor could have I forced it to happen – but they brought it about themselves, and as a result, our class bond grew even stronger. They learned vulnerability – they embraced it – and I was so grateful to help them experience it.
The second thing I learned this year was grace – in measures more than I ever could have imagined.
A few months into the school year, I had a student (whose name and gender I will keep private) get involved in some stuff that I wasn’t too happy about. Up to that point, this student had proved to be a leader and a role model – someone that I could count on and who seemed eager about learning. I didn’t want to believe it about them – but then to make it worse, they lied to me when I asked them if they were involved in it.
I was grievously disappointed about it, and thought about just letting it go, but knew I couldn’t. Teaching isn’t just about the comfortable/happy/proud moments – it’s also about opportunities like this to help students learn lessons about life that don’t come from textbooks.
But after spending a weekend upset about it, I came to see that the reason this student lied to me was because they didn’t want to let me down. They didn’t want to upset me, which led to the lie. And I understood, because I WAS upset about it. I did kind of expect them to be perfect, which wasn’t fair of me, because none of us are.
And it was in that moment that I realized what grace was – seeing the wrong, acknowledging the hurt, but extending undeserved forgiveness anyway – exactly the way Christ does. God revealed His own forgiveness to me in that moment where I realized how I needed to extend forgiveness to this child.
So that morning when I sat my student down (ironically after finding out that they had just been lied to by someone important to them), and I confronted them about the lie, and I said, “And you know what it feels like to be lied to, don’t you?” – the tears just welled up in their eyes.
But I continued – “It hurt me that you felt like you had to lie to me about this because I don’t ever want you to feel like you have to be perfect. I don’t expect you to be perfect. We all make mistakes and fail. But I want you to be able to come to me and tell me so that there can be another chance. I don’t care about you because you always ‘do the right thing.’ I care about you as a person, no matter what you do.”
We had to talk about rebuilding trust and what that looked like, too – but that moment solidified grace and trust to me as a teacher. God gave me such grace to be able to come to that moment – to let go of the anger towards the dishonesty and to give that child what they needed – true love. And for the rest of the year, that relationship and that trust only continued to grow. And I learned to be more generous with my grace instead of staying angry about the offense.
It is astounding to me the things that God teaches me through being a teacher. His grace to me is staggering – that He would allow me to have an impact on these small lives and to teach them things that I am slowly learning myself.
But I’m grateful that I got to be a part of their lives this year, even if it got interrupted. Because with all of our hard talks, tears, and hugs, there were also moments of laughter over pranks, memes, comic-book drawings of me, and punching mannequins at Career Fairs.
These kids captured my heart. And I’m so glad that we created a home sweet classroom together in such a beautiful way.
Forever I’ll be grateful for them.