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.