Teaching is a long conversation. It is an interplay of ideas and experiences. I was attracted to teaching because I love connecting with people, learning about their interests, and understanding how they think. I know from my own experiences as a student that the teachers who stopped and took time to talk to me were critical in building my sense of self and developing my reasoning skills. Without those conversations, I would not, on my own, have made the connections needed to grow my thinking.
When I was a classroom teacher, I made it my practice to check-in regularly with each student, not only during reading and writing conferences, but also to check-in on their social-emotional development: how they were feeling about friends and family, how they were able to handle stress. I knew that the way my students felt about themselves greatly affected their ability to persevere and learn. These teacher-student conversations were so rewarding; they built self-awareness, agency, and community. Most of the academic content might not be remembered, but I knew the social connections would be. Students would remember that someone listened to them and valued their opinions.
This week, as I worked with a small group of 4th graders, I was reminded about how important connection truly is. We were working in the Wonder Studio, and I opened up my adjoining office to make more room for their crafting projects. In my office, I had hung a large display of my class photos over the span of my teaching career. Several students noticed the photos and started asking me questions. I was intrigued by how their questions were so closely connected to their personalities. The first one to comment was my logical reasoner and problem-solver, Jasara. She got close up to the photo and saw the date – 1979. “You have been teaching for 43 years!” she declared. I chuckled. Another student chimed in, “43! My father is 43!” Jasara kept analyzing the photos, but what she focused on were the numbers: in 1985, I was teaching for 6 years; in 1993, I was teaching for 14 years. I was relieved when she couldn’t find any more dates. I was beginning to feel very old indeed.
Then Maren came to inspect the photo. She is confident and competitive. Maren looked intently at all the children’s face. “Which one was your favorite,” she demanded.
“I liked them all,” I declared.
She narrowed her eyes at me, “You had to have had a favorite.”
I started to feel defensive but kept calm. “They were all great kids: Charlie was a great sailor, Ben made me laugh, Stephanie was quiet and thoughtful, Antonio wrote plays…”.
Maren cut me off, “My mother says she doesn’t have a favorite, but I know she does.” And with that she trounced off to get some fabric.
I breathed a sigh of relief. If I were to be completely truthful, I enjoyed the company of all the children. But there are a few who still keep in touch with me, who now as grown-ups take time to reach out to me. So yes, Maren is probably right, but I’m not going to tell her unless she calls me up ten years from now to see how I’m doing!
Darlene was listening to these conversations the whole time. She sat by my side working and listening. Finally, she got up and took a closer look at the photos. She looked at all the little faces of strange children now adults. She also went over to some other photos I had on another shelf. The photos were of some former students, who are now adults, with careers and children of their own.
Then she came back to my side. “I’m going to be in one of those photo frames,” she said pointing. Then quickly added, “But they won’t be here in your office. They will be at your home because you’ll be retired by then.”
I smiled and gave her side-hug, “And we can meet for tea, and you can tell about all the wonderful things you are doing.”
Darlene’s face glowed, “Yes, yes! I’ll tell you about my newest cookbook.” This was an inside joke. I have been encouraging Darlene’s writing through reading and making recipes for the past three years. I have no doubt that her grown-up face will one day grace my bookshelf, as well as several of her award-winning cookbooks!