What My Students Have Taught me

This week marked my 18th First Week of School as a high school teacher. I’ve survived seventeen full years in the classroom, and I’m still just as excited and dedicated as I was that first September so long ago. 

Granted, I’m older (and a little softer), but I’m wiser and stronger, too.

As I once again devote time to planning and reflecting on what I’ll teach my new crop of students, it’s a good time to reflect on what I’ve learned from them over the years.

Lesson #1: Always open your circle to let someone new in.

I can remember the first time I received a new student in the middle of a lesson. A new girl had just arrived weeks earlier from Guatemala, and when she was escorted to our classroom, new schedule in hand, she looked timid and nervous. I was still teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) back then, but when I greeted her in Spanish, I could see a wave of relief wash over her face. As soon as she took her seat and I was about to resume the lesson, no less than five other girls flocked around her, introducing themselves, looking at her schedule and then arguing over who would get to show her around. When I think back to my school days, the new kid in the class was often ignored while everyone stared, sizing him up. Ok, maybe one person talked to him, but that was it; he was pretty much on his own.

Lesson #2: Ask for help freely and often.

For many of us, asking for help is hard! We don’t like admitting that we don’t know something or that we can’t figure it out on our own. We feel an uncomfortable kind of humility when asking for help, especially in a classroom. When I was in school, most of us abhorred collaborative learning! Whenever a teacher said he would be breaking us into pairs or groups, our groans could be heard across town. However, my students love working together; they thrive on it! They don’t think twice about leaning over and asking for an explanation or help with a problem. And asking for help isn’t limited to the classroom; I’ve often heard them asking each other where they can find people or places in the community, or where they can go for such-and-such. The beautiful thing is, every time they ask for help, they wholeheartedly expect to receive it! How many of us ask and doubt that we will be heard or that our needs will be met?

Lesson #3: Good food, dancing and tons of balloons are medicine for the soul.

As a teacher, I’m often invited to my students’ parties: graduation parties, quinceañeras, sweet sixteens, birthday parties, baptisms of younger siblings, etc. I’ve even been invited to their parents’ baby showers and weddings! Every party I’ve attended has been over the top. All the elements, from the amount of food, music cranked to max volume, the number of balloons and colorful decorations, and the fact that everyone — from ages 2 to 102 — dances, unite to create a vibrant, welcoming, and life-affirming celebration. And most of these parties are in their backyards, not a catering hall! It proves that you don’t need a lot of money to throw a great party, you need a lot of heart. A few years ago, my 8th period class threw me a surprise birthday party after school, and it was no less amazing than the parties I’ve been to at their homes. They even found my Facebook profile and downloaded my photo, which they had transferred to fondant and placed on the top of the cake! When I think of my parties with few people, usually devoid of music and dancing, and sparsely decorated, I wonder if perhaps they’re better suited for the morgue than my living room! 

Lesson #4: Your mom is the most important person in your life.

In my classes, we do a lot of writing, and my ninth-graders complete a book project every year. For this project, students write their own mini version of a memoir, complete with ten vignettes (chapters), a cover, table of contents and a dedication page. One of the chapters is usually about someone they admire, and that someone is almost always their mother. It doesn’t matter if their mother is attentive and supportive or distant and critical; she’s their mother, making her equal to a goddess in human form: worthy of respect, protection and unconditional love. It’s inspiring and humbling to read how much they revere their mothers, even in the cases when I know any reasonable person would understand if they didn’t.

Lesson #5: No matter what, never leave someone alone when they’re down.

My students are so good at not just caring about each other, but caring for each other. I’ve had both boys and girls break down in my class for personal reasons and just start crying. Each time, several students surround them, asking what’s wrong, putting a hand on their back or shoulder for support, and giving hugs when needed. If the student requires a trip to Student Services to speak with a social worker or psychologist, a few students always volunteer to walk them down, often sitting with them until they can be seen. More than half of my students arrive here having already experienced some kind of trauma in their young lives. Helping one another reminds them they’re not alone in their pain, and extending a hand to someone else in need means that a hand will also be extended to them someday.

This weekend, I’ll be reviewing questionnaires and short videos I assigned this week as a way for students to tell me more about themselves so I can get to know them. I’ll also be planning the first full week of remote lessons, hoping to teach them how to identify main ideas and details, formulate arguments and counterarguments, and make a personal connection to the material just as effectively as if I were teaching them in person.

I’m hopeful that I’ll teach them well.

And I’m wondering what new lessons they will teach me this year, too.

Let’s keep the conversation going! Leave me a COMMENT and tell me what are some life lessons you’ve learned from a younger — or older — person?