Tuesday, November 23, 2010

You know your students' names, but do you know their parents' names?

One of the many gifts I have gotten in this life is to teach for a living. It is something I was born to do. The child of two exemplary educators, it was encoded in both the nature and nurture parts of my childhood. Regardless, to me teaching is a gift with which I take pride, find stress in and rejoice at the small bits of daily triumph. The second gift I have been afforded is that of being a parent. Like any parent, I find awe in and grow to love my daughters more each day. Nature's response to this in my innate feeling to provide them with the best that I can. The best warm winter jacket, a filling and healthy lunch, a well rested and clean body with which to happily start the day. I also want what most parents want a school that is going to take over where I left off for the day. A place that is going to teach them to read and write and be ready for the world beyond first grade, but mostly a place that is going care about them while doing this. A place where they feel safe enough to ask questions and make mistakes. But, also a place where if they are pushing the limits their teacher cares enough about them to involve me in their choices, not because the behavior is a nuisance and interfering with his or her teaching, but because he or she cares enough to expect better from them.

There is a former kindergartner of mine, we'll call him Lyle (not his real name) who is now a second grader. When Lyle first arrived mid-year in my classroom, he was an expert in pushing the limits of both my patience and the boundaries of what our class had decided was socially acceptable in our classroom. He was an extremely friendly kid, very easily engaged but academically low compared to his classmates and one of only three children of color in the class. His response to work when things became difficult would be to visit with another kid and get them off track, thus diverting the attention from himself (tricky, right? quite brilliant) or become defiant. It took me several weeks to see the patterns. It took me the same amount of time to learn his mother, Gayle's (not her real name), cell phone number by heart.

Sometimes, I would march him over to the phone and we would call her together. She would give him a good talking to and remind him that Mrs. Haen wanted just what she wanted, for him to do his best. We both cared about him. There were other times when I would call Gayle out of Lyle's presence just to check in on things and update her on his progress or struggles.
We got to be a team. She called often to ask questions about her other three children or just to talk.

It became the secret magical tool that I could pull out. The caring and compassionate tool. "I care about you, I care that you learn, I care that you expect the best from yourself just like your mom does." Lyle knew these words. He knew them well.
So well that I'll never forget one day while he was sitting at his table and he saw me walk towards my desk and said, "What you gonna do call my momma?" In fact I was, it was a perfectly normal day, nothing extraordinary, nothing rotten just a kid sitting at his table doing the work that his teacher had given him. I called him mom to report day and she teared up in responding to my consistent caring and compassion in being Lyle's teacher. She said that she had a teacher just like me when she was in school and she never forgot her. She was the reason that she even graduated.

Lyle is a second grader now and has had a string of excellent and compassionate teachers. He still struggles with academics, but not for want of his teacher's caring, he is making the necessary growth. I see him at least once a month and talk on the phone to both he and his two older sisters and mom once a week.

Gayle and I were a team during Lyle's kindergarten year. One of many teams I have been on. Gayle new my expectations were high not because I wanted the smartest kids in my class, but because I cared about his future, his well being and his positive choices. These were the same things she cared about. We should all be so lucky should it be our choice, to be a parent know the deepest depths of wanting the best for our children. This can translate into the depths of caring that we want for our students.

What team are you on? Do you know the names of all of your parents? Give yourself a little quiz and see if you are at grade level with the score. How can the simplicity of caring cross racial, economic and social lines in your school and classroom?

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