Friday, September 19, 2014

Authoring One's Life

At the beginning of the school year I run through all of the regular first day motions that most teachers go through. We play an ice breaker name game, take attendance, and go over the rules and class procedures together. As we go through the rules and procedures together, one of the most important points I bring up is the matter of teacher-student respect and student-student respect. We talk about what the  term "respect" really looks like and what it really means on a daily basis. As we discuss concrete examples of respect, I like to tell students that you never really know what other people are going through.  I remind them that when/if they behave disrespectfully towards each other (in the form of teasing, mockery, sarcasm, etc.) that they could really be hurting someone who is already in a tremendous amount of emotional pain. The atmosphere in the classroom typically changes when we discuss this reality. It's as though everyone becomes very aware of their own humanity and it brings a feeling of humility to the class. I think this point really resonates with students as they are at a very sensitive and vulnerable stage in their lives. From this first moment together as a class I want students to know that I do not intend to treat them disrespectfully and I ask that they behave similarly. I want students to know that we all hold some power in the classroom, this is not a dictatorship.

I share this story because one of my priorities as a teacher is to make kids feel empowered, to make them take ownership of their own actions and the consequences that follow. I also feel that it is incredibly important for me to let students know that I'm not there to criticize them or break them apart. I have many memories of feeling powerless and out of control as a child and as an adolescent. I remember many teachers who sought to control me, to dis-empower me. As they shouted or mocked or blatantly ignored me, I learned that they didn't really see me. They didn't see what I had to offer. Without my teachers having to say that I was not worthwhile or valuable, I still learned this lesson. I often flew under the radar. I remember one of the only projects that I ever put any effort into involved creating a soundtrack for the novel Wuthering Heights. I really couldn't tell you anything about the book, but what I do remember is the feeling of validation that came with verbal praise and recognition from the teacher after she graded the project. She made it a point to recognize me, to treat me with genuine respect and kindness. It is for this reason that I choose to look for the good in each student on a daily basis. I want to draw this goodness out of each of my students.

I believe that my Wuthering Heights experience is the exact type of experience that author Michael J. Nakkula is talking about in his book, Understanding Youth. Nakkula argues that we learn exponentially more from our experiences and interactions with teachers and classmates than we will ever learn from a set of notes taken in class. Teachers and schools are incredibly concerned with content and curriculum, and rightfully so-standards are important. However, there are other very important lessons that students continue to learn when they attend school. Each interaction is a page in the novel of a student's life. Through their teachers, students learn whether or not they have value. Teachers have an impact on students' lives whether or not they realize it. Teachers are "co-authors" in the stories of their students lives, according to Nakkula. Every action is a choice with serious implications. 

Nakkula includes a variety of very important points in writing about this subject matter. He emphasizes the importance of relationships with students, but also asks-"how do we go about doing this?" Additionally he adds that the traditional school structure inhibits the ability of students to feel empowered. These are two important points to consider-how do we form real relationships with more than one hundred students at a time? And how do we do this in 45 minute increments in a controlled environment? These circumstances are not conducive to deep relationship building. In order to break down the barriers between teachers and students, Nakkula encourages teacher transparency and honesty. He adds that this can be the difference between really getting to see student progress versus a student completely shutting down or becoming disruptive.

The resounding message here is that all teachers are students and all students are teachers. We are all constantly learning from our day to day interactions, whether we realize it or not. If all teachers and all students truly understood the depth and significance of this reality, we could have a profound and lasting impact in schools. So the question I'm left with is: How can I become a better student of my students?


  1. Brittany,
    Well said. Your question really made me stop and think, How can I become a better student of my students. If we become better students of our students, we will truly know our them. We will deepen our relationship with them. As a result,we will successfully help our students to become better learners. I think that it is a question that I will continue to ask myself for the rest of my career and the answer will be always changing.

  2. I remember my first "Wuthering Heights" moment too, and it was in my sixth grade English enrichment class. From that moment on, English became my passion. Even in high school, it was my favorite subject (ironically, right?) Actually, I may not have gone on to pursue Spanish in college to the extent I did had I not received an award for it at graduation. In other words, the reason I feel "successful" in Spanish and in English is because teachers along the way encouraged me and helped me realize I had ability. Not so with science, math, or history! So funny how even in our own lives when we look back, we remember those teachers who championed us. We can only hope to do the same for our own students. I love the way you discuss respect with your middle schoolers and remind them of how vulnerable we all are!