Not long ago, I wrote an article called “What Students Remember Most About Teachers” to which I received a phenomenal response from my readership. I continue to hear daily from people with stories to share about the teachers who made an impact on their lives- hear from those as well who share about the teachers who have chosen worthwhile ways in which to interact and be with their students, in the day-to-day lives of their classrooms. Last week, I received this comment, a comment which stopped me abruptly in my tracks, causing me to consider to an even greater degree the message behind that article I had written. Here is the comment in its entirety:
I’m new to the world of teaching – just finished my internship in a lovely kindergarten classroom. However, at the end of my experience three months ago, one of my students unexpectedly passed away. It has had a profound effect on my view of a teacher, but it has been difficult to put into words how my priorities changed.
This letter explains it.
To me, it is of course important to cover curricular objectives and make sure students are learning and growing. That is what teaching is. However, at the end of the day, the most important thing to me is that my students enjoy themselves and know that they were cared about. Because if, god forbid, it is their last few weeks on earth, I want those weeks to hold as much joy as possible.
I know that’s not quite where you were going with this letter – but it rings true anyway. Thank you.
As I read this teaching colleague’s letter written personally to me, images immediately conjured up in my mind of the horrific days just a little over a year ago whereby I found myself to be in a very similar place as she finds herself now. Because at our school, a sweet little boy just down the hall from me, one grade level up- fell ill and later died on the heels of a busy school week. He was in school Friday, dead on Saturday. No warning. One last picture taken the day before, during Show and Tell, to hold a lifetime of memories. In fact, I sang and played the piano at his funeral. Jesus Loves Me, This I Know. How can one ever forget the image of a small casket holding one so precious, so full of potential and promise. It is a mother’s worst nightmare. And although I was not his mother- nor was I his classroom teacher, I am a mother to four other sweet children whom I held that much more tightly, that much closer because of this tragedy. And teacher to countless others I call my own. I hold these all a little closer, a little tighter, now that I know better. Now that I know more. Because one never comes through an event like that unscathed. Unbroken. It was heart-breaking- words fail to adequately sum up the emotions that were experienced at the time. Experienced still, for many of us. It affected all of us in our school- and indeed in the surrounding communities as well. Such a profound and senseless loss.
And when one has experienced loss in such a way, I don’t think you ever look again at things in quite so casual a manner. No longer are you asking the same questions, going through the same rote motions. Habitually living your life. Rather, you ask yourself this: if this were my childrens’ or any one of my students’ last day here on earth, would it be a pleasant, happy, peaceful one for them? Would I in any way be a hindrance to them in living out their last moments here on earth with joy and hope? Would I actually be a help, offering them kindness, love, compassion and concern? Would their last day on earth be the best day imaginable, the most fulfilling one possible: and all because I stopped to consider what might be the most worthwhile way in which to spend that day with them? All because I chose to show care and concern over frustration and impatience? Important considerations for teachers to keep in mind. Because when it comes down to it, it really isn’t about the curriculum we teach: it is about the heart with which we teach that curriculum. It’s about the love we show in our words and in our actions.
It’s really about love, when all is said and done.
Donald S. Blumenfeld-Jones poses an important question in an article on curriculum as to what the right question must be for determining curricular studies. In order to get at what is important- what is CORE in terms of schooling and time spent “on task”, one must first ask “What knowledge is of most worth? Or even, “What knowledge can we not do without?” In other words, what is worth giving our time and attention to- our thoughts and intentions towards- in terms of learning. In terms of mental, intellectual and physical growth?
William Schubert in his article “What is worthwhile: From Knowing and Needing to Being and Sharing” poses thoughts on what is worthwhile in terms of learning. In terms of needing. Experiencing. Doing and being. In terms of becoming. And he extends these thoughts to what’s worthwhile in terms of sharing. In terms of contributing. What is worthwhile in terms of wondering. In other words, what is worth spending our precious time on earth as we live life, from second to second. Minute to minute. Day to day. Year to year.
We only have this one opportunity: what is worthwhile doing and being while we’re at this job of living our lives? Or as teachers, we only ever have the day we are in RIGHT AT THAT MOMENT with our students: we are only ever guaranteed that one day in which we are living. Are we doing our utmost to make that one day the best one possible for our students? As if it could be their very last?
Today, we are on our thirteenth storm day. Meaning, there have been thirteen non-consecutive days thus far in the school year here on P.E.I. for which school has been cancelled due to this unusually brutal winter we are having in Atlantic Canada (a winter which seems to be brutal in much of the rest of North America as well, I might add). Currently, there have been five consecutive days of cancelled classes, stimulating much talk in public and private circles which concern themselves with educational matters. People concerned with outcomes and expectations. People concerned with time off task and focused in-class instruction. People concerned that students might not be absorbing information and skills within the four corners of the school walls, thus they must needs not be learning. People concerned with the matter that students need to be gaining knowledge in school rooms, not whittling their time away doing what kids like to be doing: whatever that might be. There will be calls that extra-curricular activities should be cancelled and that there must not be any wasted instructional time.
But what is really of most worth will never be discussed: that is, that students need teachers for more than merely instruction. They need teachers because teachers care. Care about them. Care about their person. Care about who they’ve been, who they are now and who they will one day become. Care to listen and to offer advice. Care to empathize and offer compassion. Care in little and big ways. That’s because teachers are interested in students as people- not just as consumers of knowledge. Not just as sponges who must soak up information. Buckets to fill up with important knowledge and skills. Teachers care about students because intrinsically we believe deep down that what is of worth knowing the most is this: our students.
We want to know our students.
And while we might be taken to task on matters of educational import, matters of the heart are really where it matters. And those matters are what teachers like myself will continue to spend their time on in spite of the call to “time on task”. Because what is of worth your last day of life should ever be in our minds: should be ever compelling us to stop and take heed. We have no idea how long- how much time anyone on this earth will be given. If this were the last day for anyone in my circle of influence, I should hope that the time they spent with me was worth their while.
Was worth spending it with me.
What a precious responsibility we have been given. May we never take it lightly.
What is of most worth? Is it love or curriculum? Kindness or literacy? Compassion or numeracy? Empathy or time on task? Teaching to the test or teaching to the heart? The answer to each of these questions lies somewhere within us all. It is up to us to answer the questions wisely and carefully.
And the ways in which we answer these questions speak directly to where our heart is calling us. That is, speak directly to whether our heart is calling us toward love or away from it.