As educators we are tasked with filling our students with knowledge but sometimes, even more important, our job is to create space; to plant a seed, step back and allow it time to grow. The work that a student does on his or her own, the learning or self knowledge that springs organically, is the most deeply rooted and impactful of all.
In my kindergarten class, as in many elementary classes around the world, we assign classroom chores every Monday morning. Last Monday, the name I pulled for the chore of being classroom greeter belonged to a very smart and wonderful boy with a few social/emotional challenges. The job involves going up to people who enter our classroom, shaking their hands and saying, “Welcome to our classroom”. Upon hearing his assigned chore I saw my young friend (I’ll call him John) tense up and flush. “No”, he said, resolutely shaking his head, “I’m not doing that. I am NOT doing that”.
Sitting in circle I explained to him that I knew he felt fear about the prospect of greeting people, but that I wanted him to be okay with feeling that fear, to notice it, but to understand that what he was being asked to do wasn’t anything dangerous. I told him that he was fully capable of acknowledging the fear, and doing the job anyway. We had a group discussion, as we often do, about the importance of how we talk to ourselves in our minds – the power of our thoughts. John listened but still asserted that he wasn’t going to do the job. I told him that I accepted his decision, but that I wasn’t going to change his assignment, and that he could either do it, or not do it, when the time came.
All week my Teacher’s Assistant and I waited for a visitor, but none came. John was more keenly aware of traffic in and out of the classroom than usual, but his moments of anticipatory tension all disolved when the person holding the door handle was, invariably, a classmate coming back from the bathroom.
Then came Thursday. Our school is a Montessori charter, and each Thursday a tour of prospective parents comes through many of our classrooms. Engaged in a lesson with a group of children I was oblivious to the sound of the group outside our classroom. My ever observant TA came and tapped me on the shoulder. “Look at John”, she said.
John was standing, ramrod straight, about ten feet back from the classroom door. I could see the internal diaglogue projected all over his face – he was nodding, looking resolute, he was shaking his head, looking panicked, but his feet stayed firmly planted.
As each of the parents walked into our classroom, John extended his hand, made perfect eye contact and said, “Welcome to our classroom”, ten times in row. When he had greeted the entire group, he turned to me, gave a coy smile, like it was nothing, and went back to work.
My TA and I both had tears brimming. I followed the group outside and shared with them the magical moment they had just unknowingly participated in. Tears brimmed all round.
Some of the most important work we do as teachers has nothing to do with anything that will ever appear on a test. Some of the most important work we do as teachers is in sharing a concept and then getting out of the way to allow it to grow. Absolutely, this is something that works in academic instruction as well as in social/emotional guidance. But teaching children the power of their own thoughts, helping them to see that it’s okay to feel fear and push through it, empowering them – those are the lessons, more than any academic concept we might teach, that make our job an important one.