It’s Sunday night of Labor Day weekend.
Emotions hang everywhere. Even as we grieve the last weekend of summer the air is thick with anticipation. Tomorrow marks the beginning of a new school year. Hip shoes and flashy backpacks have been purchased. Three-ring binders, two-pocket folders and Elmer’s glue sticks stand at the ready.
My own granddaughter, Annika, will begin her first day of high school tomorrow. My best friend’s granddaughter, Charley, is off to her first day of kindergarten. It is bittersweet time of new beginnings that mark the fast-paced passing of time. We reflect, we remember, we look forward, we hope.
Gone are the days of holding these children we love safe in our arms. They’re in school now. And along with that great opportunity comes uncertainty, as well.
Three plus decades in as an educator, I am not immune to the anxiety.
We’re sending the children we love off into the hands of others, and all of us – the parents, the grandparents, the aunts, the uncles, and of course the children themselves – we all want the same thing. We want these children to be loved and nurtured in ways that help them to blossom and grow. We want them to return home at the end of the day with a sparkle in their eye and we want them to leave for school again the next day with a skip in their step.
We pray they will thrive.
The letter below reminds us of simple actions that have immeasurable impact toward that end.
I didn’t sleep much last night, because I kept thinking about the upcoming school year. Wondering and worrying what it’s going to be like.
I’ve been thinking about it for sort of a long time now. It started back around the 4th of July when the first back-to-school sale flyers showed up in our mailbox. I don’t want to admit to my friends (or even my family) how nervous I really feel. But, I do feel nervous. And the closer it gets the more butterflies seem to be living in my stomach. Starting fresh. Everything new. So much unknown. So much to figure out. You can relate, right? You’ve had many first days, too.
Sometimes, in the dark of my bedroom or in the backseat of the car, I find my mind racing with worry. The questions start swirling . . .
- What if my teacher doesn’t like me?
- What if my teacher doesn’t like some other kids?
- What if I don’t have friends?
- What if everyone laughs at what I say?
- What if it’s terribly boring?
- What if it’s terribly hard?
- What if I can’t get to the bathroom in time?
- What if there are so many rules I can’t remember them all?
- Who can I trust?
- How much homework will I have?
- What if all this worry makes me cry?
The more I think the more worried I get. But I’m hoping, once I get to your classroom, my worries will start to dissolve. I’m hoping once I meet you and see how you look at me, I’ll suddenly know everything’s going to be okay. Because it will be, right?
But, instead of just worrying, I thought maybe I would try writing down a few ideas to share with you. Nothing earth shattering. Just simple ideas I have about things that teachers like you can do to make a difference for kids like me. Hopefully, this stuff isn’t new to you. But, honestly, I’ve known some teachers in the past who seemed like they must have missed this stuff completely in their teacher’s training. At least I’m hoping that’s what it was, because I can’t believe they just simply didn’t care.
So, here they are. Seven simple requests to help kids like me believe that school is a good place to be this year.
Please learn my name. Learn how to say it and learn how to spell it. It is quite literally who I am. When you mispronounce, forget, or snicker with others about my name, you disrespect my very existence in the world. I understand that maybe my name is different from the names you are used to. I understand that it might take some practice to learn to pronounce it correctly. It’s okay. I can help you as long as you are willing to learn. I know you will ask me to learn many difficult things this year. And I am hoping in return you will respect me enough to know my name and say it with the respect that my parents intended when they carefully chose it for me.
Please smile. Starting over with everything new is scary business. On the inside I’m feeling all kinds of anxiety and your face is one of the first places I will look for signs that things are going to be okay. So, please, smile warmly. Smile like you mean it. Smile like you’re truly glad you get to be my teacher this year. If there is room for me to believe anything different, there will most certainly be heartache ahead for both of us. But when you smile, a big genuine smile. I see that you care and that you want everything to be okay, too.
Please listen. Look me in the eye and be truly present when you talk to me. Show me that you care enough about me to learn what is inside of me. Ask powerful open-ended questions and then, please, please, please, don’t jump in to answer for me or ask a whole other question while I’m still working to formulate an answer to the first one. Instead, just wait. Give me the time I need to find the words to tell you what is on my mind and in my heart. When you rush me, it makes me wonder if you really care about what I have to say in first place. When you patiently wait, I see that I am worthy of your time and attention.
Please don’t judge me before I show up. Maybe you’ve seen test scores or reading levels or you’ve heard stories about me from the teacher down the hall. Maybe you had my brother in your class two years ago. But here’s the thing, I’m so much more than what you’ve read or heard about me. I’m more than a reading level or a proficiency label. I’m not the same kid I used to be and I’m certainly nothing like my brother! So, please don’t let your head get so full of ideas about me before I even show up that there’s no room for me to show you who I really am. I’m uniquely me. Just wait. You’ll see.
Please don’t let me fool you. Before I know that I can trust you, I might try to fool you with some sort of distraction. I might chatter and talk too much. Or I might not say anything at all. I might play the part of the class clown or the tough guy. But no matter what disguise I wear on the outside, on the inside I am hoping that you will care enough to see, hear and accept me for who I am. Sometimes, I’ll admit, it’s a bit of a test, just to see how committed you are to really building a relationship with me. And sometimes in the past, I’ve found grown ups that were scared off pretty easily. I’m waiting to see how this year will be.
Please show me that you are human, too. I want to know you, not just as another teacher, but as a real human being. I want to see you laugh and I want to see you cry. I want to know little interesting details of your life, like what’s your favorite kind of sushi and how you’re coming with training for your first 5K. And I want to know that you are as imperfect as I am. I want to know that you make mistakes, that you struggle sometimes, and that you have uncertainties, too. When you let me know you in this way, making yourself vulnerable along the way, it makes it so much more likely that I will do the same. You go first. You’re the grown-up.
Please read to me. No matter how old I am. No matter what class you teach. Please keep bringing the inspiring words of the world into our classroom through read aloud. Find great picture books and poems and quotations and letters and newspaper articles. Help me build empathy and understanding and courage and optimism and tenacity through the words of others. The world is bursting with worthy texts. Keep finding them and bringing them to our classroom. And read them to us as though they are gold. You do the reading work, we’ll do the thinking and feeling work and together our classroom community will grow stronger day by day. These texts you read aloud will become the foundation of our community, creating windows to the world and exercises in empathy.
Thanks. See you soon.
P.S. I’m so lucky to be coming to your classroom. Thanks for all you have done to make school a wonderful place to be.
P.S.S.. Even though you probably didn’t need these tips yourself, would you please help pass them along? It would mean a lot because some kids might get teachers who don’t understand this stuff the way you do.
This post is dedicated to Annika (on her first day of high school) and to Charley (on her first day of kindergarten) and to every other first-day-of-school-kid in our lives, including Boden and Zach and Caden and Cassie and Rumer and Macy and Breck and Lucas and Ridge and Claire and Carsten and Tegan . May you thrive and grow this and every year. My love is with you. Be brave. Be kind. Dream big.