After I began writing articles and receiving positive responses from different readers, I was asked to write more about what I have learned as an educator. Because of this, I began thinking about the greatest lesson I learned as an educator and how that lesson has contributed to my interactions with my students in the classroom.
I don’t have many pictures from early in my teaching career, but I found this lovely memory. This was taken a couple of years in, when I was still coaching soccer. Our last game was on my birthday, and my girls surprised me with a cake. Look at that sweet little naive face! I still had so much to learn.
I started teaching 14 years ago, but I still remember my first day as a teacher like it was yesterday. I had everything ready: I had seating charts prepared for every class, I had my work bins smartly labelled and aligned by the door, I had my trash cans strategically positioned, I had my file folders color coded and neatly labelled. I was ready for anything. Or so I thought.
Everything went great for the first few classes; my students listened attentively, they engaged actively in my ice-breaker activity, and I felt very pleased with my performance. Then fifth period came around. In this class, I had one particular student, Jace, who kept falling asleep, and I kept waking him up. I remember how I progressively became ruder and snarkier each time I tapped him awake. “Set the tone early,” my college professors had said. “If you don’t want to deal with it in May, don’t let it happen in August.” Well, I was setting the tone. Sleeping was not to be tolerated in my class, and anyone caught doing so would deal with the consequences.
“Sleeping again? Not a good way to begin the year.” “Isn’t this your SECOND time taking this class? Not a good start for someone who hopes to graduate.” I cringe as I remember these words, so harshly spoken, so gleefully uttered, thinking that I was establishing a classroom environment in which all my students would fear not paying attention. I remember looking down my nose at this student, who I saw as a slacker, already a failure on the first day. I labeled him. I categorized him. I wrote him off, and I didn’t even know him.
After class, Jace approached me, eyes heavy with drowsiness. “Ms. Rogers,” he began, “I didn’t want to be rude during class, so I waited until now to talk to you.” HE didn’t want to be rude to ME. Imagine that. I had been rude to him without a second thought. “I was in a car accident a few weeks ago. It was pretty serious…” So Jace’s story began. He had been involved in a drunk-driving accident a few weeks prior, and he had been seriously injured as a result. He raised his shirt to show me the still-fresh, angry red scar that cut across his abdomen, proof of the emergency surgery that had been performed in order to save his life. “I’m sorry that I was sleeping in class,” he said. “I have to take pain medication a few times a day, and it makes me really tired. I took some after lunch, and I’m sorry, but I couldn’t stay awake. The doctors didn’t want me to come back to school yet, but I wanted to come so I wouldn’t be behind. I’m sorry if you thought I was being rude. I just thought you should know.”
HE was sorry that HE had been rude to ME. Immediately, I felt the heavy shame of my lack of compassion. I had not even thought to ask if there was any reason why he might be sleeping. I simply assumed that he was doing it because he didn’t care about my class. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I immediately apologized profusely to Jace, and to my surprise, he lightheartedly accepted my apology. On that day, he was the bigger person. In an instant, he had somehow become the teacher, and I had become the student.
I have never forgotten Jace or the lesson I learned that day. This lesson has been the guiding principle of my entire teaching career. I learned to talk to my students, to ask questions, to find out what’s bothering them, to learn about their lives, about their struggles, about their heartaches, and that has made all the difference.
I remember a couple of years ago being called into a teacher’s meeting about a particular student who was struggling in most of his classes, but not in mine. “What are you doing differently?” they asked. “All he’s done is sleep for the past two weeks in my class,” they said. “How is he failing my class, but passing your class?” they asked. This student had been sleeping in my class as well, but remembering Jace, I had asked him WHY he was sleeping. I wanted to know what was making him so tired. “I live with my grandmother, and she had a serious heart attack. She’s been in the hospital, and I’ve been staying with her. I’m so tired during the day because it’s hard to sleep in the chair they have for me,” he had told me. So, I called home and confirmed his story with his grandfather, who was elderly and unable to stay with his wife himself. After that, I gave him his work, tried to help him stay awake, and flexed his due dates so he could get his work completed without penalty. As a result, he was still completing the assignments and passing my class. The other teachers were shocked. They had no idea. “How do you know this?” they wanted to know. I simply responded with, “I asked.”
I still remember you, Jace. Thank you for teaching me more in one class period than my college professors could teach me in four years. Thank you for reminding me to be human, even in the classroom. Teachers are human. Students are human. We are ALL human. In any profession or in any interaction, when we leave humanity outside the door, we commit a grave misfortune. When we invite humanity in, the possibilities are endless.