I switched grade levels the second year I taught. I moved from 3rd grade to 5th grade. It was a wonderful change. I loved the curriculum, and I sometimes joke that I had an opportunity to fix the mistakes of my first year because I taught those students twice.
I was excited about beginning that second year, and on the first day of school I proudly walked my class of 28 fifth graders down the hall. As we went back to our room, we happened to pass another teacher who looked at my class and said, “Ooh, YOU have M.” I watched as this young man’s shoulders, and probably all of his hopes for a fresh start, drooped. I looked at her and said, “Yes! I ASKED for M!” and I watched those shoulders go back up. I also got a little, ‘humph’ from her as she moved along.
I should tell you a little about M. He wasn’t the brightest kid, and he wasn’t the fastest. He was a bit of an Eddie Haskell, and he had the greatest smile. When I was teaching 3rd grade he would pass me in the hall and always say hello or ask how my day was. When I found out I would be teaching 5th grade, I sought out his 4th grade teacher and said, “I really like M. Can you make sure he ends up on my class list?” So, when I told the other teacher that I had asked for him, I was telling the truth. He wasn’t the easiest student to teach, but I truly believe that he worked a little bit harder knowing I had asked to have him in my class.
When I moved across the country, I once again taught 3rd grade for a year before moving up to 5th grade. During that first year, I had a few encounters with a 4th grader with an attitude. At one point, I actually picked him up and carried him into the building after recess. So, when he found out I was his 5th grade teacher, he was not very happy, and quite honestly, I wasn’t thrilled about it either. However, I made a promise to myself that when he walked through the door in the fall, we would start with a clean slate. It was a rough year. He challenged me on pretty much everything, and I had to hold my ground. I did lots of mental counting to ten before responding, but I held him to the same expectations as everyone else in the class. When the year ended, I breathed a little sigh of relief but felt I had been the best teacher I could be for him. He came back to visit at least once a year until he graduated. When he enlisted in the army and stopped in wearing his uniform, he gave me a hug and said he always knew I liked him because I didn’t let him off the hook.
I had another student who used a behavior contract the previous two years, and I knew he was a challenge. The first day of school, I sat down with him and asked about the behavior chart. He immediately told me how much he hated it and that he promised his mom he wouldn’t need it this year. My response was pretty simple, “Good. I hate those things. What are we going to do to make sure you keep your promise to your mom?” and we came up with a plan. He didn’t always follow through, and there were times that I had to be creative in how I approached the situation, but we never used a behavior contract. While it was more work for me, that he was able to keep his promise to his mom, probably for the first time, was worth it.
I know these seem like three random, unrelated students, but I mention them because how I responded made all the difference. You have to go back to the Haim Ginott quote in an earlier post, “I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.”
I think the first example influenced the other two as well as many others. I read something recently about how we remember things that are attached to an emotion. My heart ached for that student when I watched his whole body react to the other teacher’s comment, and it has made me think more carefully about what I say and do. Not that I haven’t said things in haste or frustration that I wish I could take back; I’m human, and I make mistakes. The best I can do then is to apologize and make a more concerted effort to think first.
Medical professionals are required to take the Hippocratic Oath. Maybe we should have one for teachers. Maybe something like this:
I promise to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this contract:
I will respect the education I have earned and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.
I will remember that there is art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the standards or the curriculum.
I won’t be ashamed to say “I don’t know,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a student’s learning.
I will respect the privacy of my students, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. I will not share about them or their families in the teachers’ room unless that information will help someone else teach them.
I will remember that I do not teach a test score or a data point, but a child whose learning is important.
I will remember that my words and actions are more powerful than I think, and I will use them to etch positive memories in the hearts and minds of my students.
I will remember that I must first do no harm.