I Wish My Teacher Knew, page 1
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Copyright © 2016 by Kyle Schwartz
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First Da Capo Press edition 2016
Published by Da Capo Press
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Library of Congress Control Number: 2016010208
ISBN 978-0-7382-1915-8 (ebook)
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I would like to dedicate this book to my students
who continue to teach me everyday.
1.Welcomes and Farewells: Building Community Even in Transition
2.Students and Poverty: Building on Resources and Breaking Down Barriers
3.All Families Count: Including Families in All Their Forms
4.We Will Get Through This Together: Supporting Students Through Grief and Loss
5.When Students Are in Danger: Supporting Students in the Trauma-Informed Classroom
6.Value-Driven Classrooms: A School Culture That Develops Character
7.You Got This! Building a Classroom Culture of Self-Efficacy
8.“I Can’t Wait to Learn More”: Classrooms Where Student Engagement Thrives
I Wish My Teacher Knew: A Teacher’s Guide
Join the #IWishMyTeacherKnew Community
About the Author
I Wish My Teacher Knew wouldn’t exist without the hundreds of children that I’ve had the pleasure to teach. Their stories are what make this book come alive. To protect the privacy of my students and their families, certain names and identifying characteristics have been changed.
Doull Elementary is not much different from schools across America. Our sixty-year-old school wraps around a hundred-year-old oak tree. On the south side of our building is a wide green baseball field. To the east are a soccer field and a vibrant community garden where the kindergarten students plant pumpkins and neighbors grow corn, cabbage, and sunflowers. Embedded into our sidewalk are metal plaques that list facts about each planet in the solar system, and our playground is capped with a plastic, gray climbing wall that looks like a rock formation. Our school is full of professionals who dedicate themselves to building on our students’ strengths and meeting our community’s needs.
Every morning, families who love their children and who value education struggle to wake up sleepy students and send them off to school. School bells ring and doors fling open to let in eager students. There is a stampede of feet rushing up the stairs and busy hands scramble to hang up their coats.
Just like at every school, each day my students bring so much more than just their backpacks to school. There is no magic device that separates the troubles and joys of their home life as they walk through our doors. Each student brings a lifetime of memories, thoughts, and feelings. As teachers we need to honor this. We must recognize how these widely diverse experiences shape our students and impact their academic development.
Our school community is strong, but we face challenges—challenges that are all too familiar to many schools in America. During the 2013–14 school year, 90 percent of our students lived in poverty. More than half of our students speak a language other than English at home. In my own classroom during the 2015–16 school year, about one-third of my students qualify to receive special education services. There are many schools, nationwide, with similar statistics.
As teachers, we can sometimes become overwhelmed by the very real challenges our students face. But it’s equally important to remember our students’ strengths. We should place equal value on their interests and curiosities, because these passions can motivate our students to become engaged learners. As educators, it is our responsibility to empathize with the realities our students face and understand how those realities impact their learning. By leveraging the resources within our communities, we can work to remove barriers that hamper our students’ ability to learn.
There is only one way to do this. It is to form relationships with our students and actively build strong communities inside our classrooms. As educators, we are teaching more than subjects and concepts; we are teaching people. James Comer, a leading child psychiatrist once said, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” Therefore, as a teacher who is primarily responsible for learning, I am also in the business of relationship building.
The most important thing I do in my classroom is to actively build community. Without that, true, passionate, joyful learning is a hard goal to achieve. I do this by creating relationships with my students and their families. I make sure that they feel cared about and heard.
Building community begins the very first second I see my students. I show up every day to teach an amazing group of third graders. I clap words into syllables, I collect field trip forms and picture money, and I try to make sure Ali doesn’t pour glue on Julia’s head . . . again. I make sure to greet my students each morning by saying, “I’m so glad you are here” and “I care about you, do you believe me?”
One day a student responded, “Ugh . . . yes, I know you care about me. You tell me that all the time!” That was the best eye roll I’ve ever gotten as a teacher! Creating a sense of community continues throughout the school day. It is in the comfortable seats I provide for my students. It happens when I hand them a book I know they will love or show my genuine thrill that a yellow belt in karate was finally earned. It is in the way I comfort them when they are hurt and laugh at inside jokes we share.
There are a million little ways that I actively build community in my classroom. As you read this book, I am sure you will realize that there are a million little ways you do this in your classrooms and offices every day too. Much to my surprise, one of the little ways I built community went “viral.” It was a simp
As a first-year teacher, I worried about how much I didn’t know about my students. I explained to them that I wanted to get to know them better. I wrote, “I wish my teacher knew . . .” on the board and asked them to complete the sentence.
Each student’s response was unique. They responded with honesty, humor, and vulnerability. Sometimes their notes talked about their favorite sport. Sometimes students complained about conflict with siblings or friends. They wrote about their home life and the people who meant most to them. Sometimes they articulated their hopes for the future and sometimes they explained obstacles they were facing. After completing this lesson, I was amazed at how well it helped me connect with my students. Their notes became a tangible reminder for me to truly listen to the voices of students in my classroom.
It was always a meaningful lesson for me, but the problem was that the power of the lesson stayed inside Room 207. I did not share the idea with my colleagues. I thought that a simple question wasn’t important enough to share.
That was until one night when my cat knocked over a basket and out tumbled a crumpled orange note I had saved. In shaky handwriting it read: “I wish my teacher knew I don’t have pencils at home to do my homework.” As I reread those words, I felt the same ache as the first time I had read them. I thought of my former student, and how even though she didn’t always have access to basic resources, she still came to school every day so willing to try, willing to struggle, and willing to learn.
After years of teaching, I have learned the sad reality is that her situation was far from unique. I wondered what the millions of children in our country’s classrooms would say to their teachers if given the opportunity. I decided to share the activity with other teachers. I took a picture of the note with my cell phone and uploaded it to my new Twitter account. I typed in this girl’s words and hit the Tweet button.
My goal in posting this little girl’s note was to share a simple message with other educators: that students will share their realities with us if we simply give them an invitation. The real power of this exercise, and why so many people responded to it, has to do with the raw truth of the student’s’ words. When we are willing to really listen, our students might feel safe enough to express their truth. As teachers we need to ask, so that students will answer. But we also need to listen, so our students are heard.
Soon I began to get messages from around the world. I heard from teachers inspired to ask their students the same question and who began to share their responses. States away, fellow teachers had their students complete the simple sentence. Notes written on index cards began to form meaningful relationships between teachers and students.
Once the response on social media gained momentum, the news media took notice. A journalist from ABC News wrote a blog post and the idea took off from there. I was taken aback as news cameras rushed to our school. On one hand, I was surprised that humble handwritten notes could cause such a stir, but on the other hand, I think that the challenges our students face and the incredible work happening daily in our classrooms deserve attention.
It should make headline news that there are so many dedicated students who do not have pencils at home, but it doesn’t. There should be outrage that many American children attend schools that lack necessary resources to teach them. We need to demand change. We must take action, both inside and outside the classroom, so that the American public education system is worthy of the brilliant students it serves. Harnessing the collective power of the voices of teachers, students, and their families is our best chance of creating the equitable system our country needs.
I believe in my students, and not just because that is what I’m supposed to do as a teacher. I hold a firm belief that my students will change the world. I warn each of them that if I don’t get an invitation to their graduation, I will show up anyway. I am always telling my students, “The day I get to vote for one of you will be the happiest day of my life,” and I mean it. I believe in my students because I know them. I see their potential, and I need that potential to be realized so that our city and our world become a better place.
Imagine a world in which every child’s potential is valued; where every child receives the excellent education they deserve. What would our government look like? What would our neighborhoods look like? What would our schools look like? What would our classrooms look like? What would school be like if we asked students to tell us what we adults don’t know?
What My Teachers Didn’t Know
Growing up, I hated school. My students are always shocked to hear that their warm and cuddly teacher once felt like a bad apple and acted like a class bully. I hope sharing my experience shows my students that everyone can change and grow, like I did.
Especially in elementary school, I was that kid who was constantly in trouble. I remember one year, I had a teacher who wrote the names of kids in trouble on the whiteboard each day. I don’t think she even bothered with the hassle of erasing my name because “Kyle S.” was consistently on the board.
At that point in my life, I said exactly what I thought, at the exact moment I thought it. I never burdened myself with politeness or tact. I challenged anyone with authority. More than once I found myself inside the principal’s office as my parents were informed of my bad behavior. I never imagined I would grow up and become my archnemesis: an elementary school teacher.
I did not always struggle in school. Until I was five years old, I grew up in Farmingdale, an unincorporated community in central Illinois not too far away from land worked by my family for over a century.
I attended kindergarten at a school surrounded on all sides by cornfields. Like so many of the families whose children I teach now, mine fell on hard times. Both of my parents were out of work and the unemployment money was running out. In the great American tradition, my father headed out West, searching for work. Eventually, my father found a job, rented an apartment, and sent for my mother, sister, and me to join him.
Our family landed right in the middle of Denver’s preplanned suburban sprawl. Instead of corn tassels, beige roofs blanketed the landscape. I remember wondering why there were so many fences around yards if there were no cows inside. The shift from my small town to suburban life was difficult for me. On the first day at my new school, other students pointed out that I spoke with a country accent, and asked me why I wore strange clothes. Another student might have become withdrawn, but I met my classmates’ curiosity with hostility.
While I had lovely teachers, none appreciated my inability to navigate this cultural shift. Looking back, I am surprised at the strategies I deployed to cope with this situation in such pragmatic and ultimately destructive ways. I shut down, put up my guard, and decided I didn’t need to form relationships with anyone. I didn’t need any new friends. I had friends back in Illinois. I even remember thinking, “I need to be mean to other kids before they have the chance to be mean to me,” and I was only in first grade. As a nine-year-old, I kept a mental list of mean things to say to each of my classmates, just in case the need arose.
This was a miserable way to live, and it certainly made everyone around me miserable as well. I was hurtful to my peers, an annoyance to my teachers, and an overall challenge for my gentle, good-natured parents who struggled to manage such a strong-willed child. This feeling lasted well into adolescence and tainted my attitude toward education. I continued to be that kid. The student no teacher wanted on her class list, and what’s worse—I knew it.
In my mind there were the “good” kids and the “bad” kids. I longed to be a good kid. The good kids always had nice clothes and combed hair, they said sweet things to the teachers, and they never forgot their backpacks on the kitchen table. It took my full concentration to not interrupt my teacher or blurt out a question, but it seemed like the good kids did not even have to try. They could sit attentively and politely, and most importantly the good kids knew how to be quiet. I resented how the
I’m sure my teachers thought I did not care about school or making friends, but the truth was I stayed awake at night reliving every mistake of the day. I secretly listened to talk radio at night to distract my mind enough to sleep. I would sometimes have pep talks with myself. I would say, “Okay, today you are not going to make the teacher mad.” Sometimes it worked, but inevitably I would lack the impulse control to keep quiet, or would snap at another student.
When a teacher reprimanded me, I refused to show emotion. Instead of crying, I drew miniature teardrops on the corners of my worksheets and pinched the skin on the inside of my wrist. To my teachers, I was a kid who did not care about anyone and was affected by nothing, but in reality the inner turmoil was eating me alive. Feeling like the bad kid was exhausting.
The cycle went on. I misbehaved, got in trouble, acted like I did not care, and secretly hated myself. Until middle school when we got real report cards for the first time. Opening up the thick orange envelope, I was shocked to see a line of straight As. Being the bad kid was ingrained in my identity, and good grades did not fit that image. I had a strange thought: “Maybe school is a place for me.” Something began to change in me. My teachers still struggled with my behavior and challenging attitude, but I softened and began to develop friendships. I joined sports teams and was even elected to student government.
After doing the “I wish my teacher knew” exercise with my students, I began to reflect on my experience in school and how it could have been different. I am grateful for the teachers who put up with more than their fair share of attitude and still helped me learn.
What I realize now is that I never reached out to my teachers. I wish my teachers had known my bad behavior and bravado were a result feeling like I didn’t belong. I wish my teachers had known I desperately wanted to please them, even though I appeared apathetic.