I grew up in a home that did not have an abundance of materials or money, but had a foundation of love. Struggle was a badge of pride, as strength was a pillar in our family values. Hard work was the only work and it was an expectation for all. Laughter was critical and family dinners were a constant source of connection. There was always a sense that life was not about us, it was about the greater good of the family.
When I became a teacher I put my values into play. My goal as a special educator was to ensure that families knew by working with me they had become an extension of my family. I carried that same goal with me as I developed connections with my colleagues. We would struggle. We would stumble. We would face the limits of our human capabilities together. Through our failures and success, we look out for the greater good of everyone within our walls. If done right we would have all the makings to create a family away from home.
When I moved to middle school I began to specialize in working with students with emotional disabilities or who had experienced trauma. I quickly knew that I had to stabilize my students’ environment if they had any chance at accessing their learning opportunities. I had to ensure that every student had a healthy home at school, even if they did not have one at home.
Over the years I have examined the ingredients that make students feel they are secure and loved so they can take academic risks to build their learning muscles.
Hear them, don’t just listen. I have come to learn that kids have so much of themselves to share, but will quickly cease communicating if they do not feel heard. They want you to remember their interests and their success. They want you to know them for more than the grades they produce. They, like you, are more than the person who shows up at school every day. They have a part of themselves who want to be accepted by an adult they respect. They also have pain and fears that may feel too heavy to carry throughout their day and just need a trusted ear to make them feel safe. Don’t dismiss the small talk, that is where we find what lies within the hearts of our students.
Laugh often. It may seem simple or even silly, but laughter is a medicine for everyone. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter improves your immune system, relieves physical pain, increases personal satisfaction, and improves your mood. A simple dad joke, dancing the running man, or starting your day introducing teenagers to 80’s rock bands is a little attempt at tapping into the humanity that lies within each of us. Take time to be silly with your students and colleagues. Take a moment at the end of the day to laugh about the craziness of the job. People that laugh together, lean on each other.
Do what you say. Trust is built on the word we keep. If you make a promise, deliver on it. Students and colleagues alike make themselves vulnerable when they depend on someone else and ask for help. If you offer your help or say you would provide assistance then make sure you can deliver on that promise. If you say you will call home with good news then make sure you take the time to reach home. If you promise a reinforcement for a particular goal or achievement then make sure you can honor and celebrate that accomplishment.
Be the example, even when you think they are not looking. Our students are impressionable and are always looking to see what is acceptable. Teachers can be a powerful influence on how to show tolerance, love, patience, and respect to all people. We also have the opportunity to model what it means to be vulnerable. We are brave enough to admit mistakes, seek forgiveness, or ask for help. We must always reflect on what environment we would want to learn in. We create that through our actions and attitudes. The children will follow in our footsteps, and a community will be born.
Remember what is really important. It is the little things that make a big impact. I have noticed that simple things like having breakfast available, small bottles of water, grandma candy on my desk, and playing music from their playlist make a huge difference. I also keep a “mom art wall” for my doodle students who like to draw or express themselves through art. I hang their assignments or tests that they are proud of (does not need to be an A) on my cabinets behind my desk. In our program, we have a formal luncheon once a trimester and break bread as a family. We laugh, share stories, and nourish our spirits in good company. I believe it is true; kids will not remember every fact they are taught, but they will remember the way we made them feel.
Every day you have an opportunity to remind students they are important and have a place in this world. Teachers have the blessing of getting to remind each student they have something to contribute to the greater good. They are important and our “family” at school would not be the same without them. They are each a unique gift and without them we would be incomplete. Then look at the colleague beside you and let them know you count on them. You could not be the educator you are without their presence. We are stronger together and together we make tomorrow better, as a family.