Four-Foot Heroes

The seven- and eight-year olds I teach are primarily immigrants. They struggle each day with a foreign language, a foreign culture, and threats like hunger and eviction that I’ve never had to confront. They come through that struggle with courage and grace. They’re the kinds of human beings I hope to become.

Kids watch our actions more attentively than they listen to our words. We don’t just teach our students to read, write, and do math and science; we try to be the kinds of readers, writers, mathematicians, and scientists that we want them to become.

During independent reading, I pull out my own novel and read for a few minutes because I want to show my students that I read voluntarily—not for a grade but for the pleasure of losing myself in a good book. When I lose my temper with a student, I seek that child out later and say I’m sorry, because I want the kids to apologize to one another when they make a mistake.

It can go too far—one of the nerdiest thoughts I have ever had as a teacher happened when I was biking to work one day and passed a cluster of my students. “I’m glad they’re seeing the importance of wearing a bike helmet,” I thought to myself with a satisfying surge of prim self-righteousness. My next thought was, “I really need something in my life besides this job. A hobby. A night out. Anything.”

Still, I’m always aware that my students will eventually do as I do. If I want them to work hard, they need to see me working hard. If I want them to delight in learning, I need to model that delight.

My mom and dad have a collage of photos of my brother, sister, and  me when we were young.  There’s a piece of writing beside the photo that reads in part, “If a child lives with acceptance, she learns to love. If a child lives with honesty, he learns what truth is. If a child lives with fairness, she learns justice.”

It’s true of parenting and it’s true of teaching—kids act out what they have lived, whether in a family or a classroom.

If we teach right, our students teach us, too. We sometimes become so eager to impart our own wisdom that we forget to receive the wisdom they have to share. We can become so focused on the example we set that we forget to follow theirs.

A hard-working second grader named Pablo won 2nd place in a writing contest, which came with a cash prize of $10. I asked him what he was going to do with his winnings, thinking he planned to save up for a video game or maybe buy a couple of paperbacks at the school book fair. Instead he told me,

“I’m going to give it to my mom to help her buy some food for our family.”

Pablo taught me generosity.

The next year, I had a student named Derek who had a learning disability. He was a brilliant kid who was fascinated by ancient Egypt and Greek mythology, but all the books on his reading level were about balloons, crayons, and losing your first tooth. Yet he struggled to master each word and letter without any trace of frustration, bitterness, or dejection. He didn’t let his disability dim his love of knowledge.

Derek taught me determination.

The seven- and eight-year olds I teach are primarily immigrants or the children of immigrants. Almost all of them live in poverty. They struggle each day with a foreign language, a foreign culture, and threats like hunger and eviction that I’ve never had to confront. They come through that struggle with courage and grace.

They’re the kinds of human beings I hope to become.




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  • Dixie

    Listening and Watching our Students

    Thanks, Justin, for reminding us how important this is. This is what can make us better teachers and humans.

    • JustinMinkel


      Dixie, I’m constantly amazed how intertwined being a human being and being a teacher is–being a teacher changes who I am every year in my other identities (dad, friend, brother, son, husband…), and ways that I change as a person always end up shaping my teaching, too.  It’s a remarkably personal profession, though it’s also one of the most public.

  • Alex Kajitani

    Great Post!

    Great post, Justin! As the father of a seven year-old daughter, I am constantly amazed and humbled by her insight and clarity. 

    • JustinMinkel

      Parenting/teaching parallels

      Yeah, Alex, I see so many parallels between fatherhood and teacherhood.  One of the most central is that we teach and model for them, but once in awhile we’re blown away by abilities they possess, to which we aspire.

  • CherylSuliteanu

    courage and grace

    Justin your students are lucky to have you, and all teachers who are able to connect with the beauty within each child.

    I would love to know more details about what you do within your classroom to teach the life skills of perseverance, courage, and determination. What kinds of activities do you incorporate into your lessons to nurture students’ hidden gifts? 

    When students are burdened with outside stressors such as you describe in your students,  how do you comfort them and motivate them when their minds are busy attending to their worries?


  • JustinMinkel

    Wonderful questions, Cheryl.

    Cheryl, the other blog I write (Teaching for Triumph through EdWeek Teacher) is focused on how we teach non-cognitive/21st century skills like those you mention–the post linked here (True Grit) focuses on how and why to teach perseverance.

    To your other question on comforting/motivating kids who have a lot of rough stuff going on outside the classroom walls, I’d love to hear your thoughts and others’, but here are three:

    *We don’t dwell on or process their struggles that much in class. The kids seem to need the kind of classroom most kids need, with plenty of safety, challenge, support, fantasy, and laughter.  When kids do seek me out with a concern (I’m thinking of one student who wrote me a letter about the absuse she had suffered the previous year, another who was temporarily homeless), I talk with them 1-on-1 at recess or lunch but I also seek out our counselor, nurse, or other support staff to make sure the child and family are connected with the resources they need.  That said…

    *I see plenty of multicultural literature but not enough multi-socioeconomic class literature.  I love books like Eve Bunting’s Fly Away Home, about a homeless boy and his dad who live in an airport, which portray the realities of poverty but don’t reduce their characters to their struggles.

    *My wife and I developed Peace Talks when we were teaching 4th grade in New York, a conflict resolution process that is simple, involves just the two students involved in a conflict (not the teacher or a peer mediator), and connects interpersonal conflicts to larger global conflicts/peace studies (i.e. The Butter Battle Book applied to current international conflicts.)  I’ll be writing a post on Peace Talks either on this blog or Teaching for Triumph in the coming month, so stay tuned.

    Thanks for reading and for the thoughtful questions.

  • BriannaCrowley

    Love the discussion happening here!

    As always Justin, you found the perfect mix of challenge and inspiration. I shared this over on to inspire more to share their stories!

  • JustinMinkel

    Thanks, Brianna!

    Brianna, I appreciate your diligent curation of these posts for GOOD.  One thing I like about GOOD is their focus on action–I often have that focus in the back of my mind when I write these blog posts now, trying to at least include a link for a book teachers might want to add to their class libraries, or the “how-to” nuts and bolts for best practices.