I recently read a book written by Denver elementary school teacher Kyle Schwarz. The book, entitled “I Wish My Teacher Knew: How One Question Can Change Everything for Our Kids,” details some of the experiences that Ms. Schwartz has had in her role as teacher in the primary grades and how they have affected her personally and professionally. It is a stark reminder that 1) adults are primarily teachers of children, rather than simply subject matter and 2) every child has unique talents and needs. Though these insights are neither new nor unique, it is sometimes easy for parents, community members and school staff to forget how important (and challenging) it is to strive to always take these two facts into account when working with our young charges.
Ms. Schwartz assigned her class members to reply to the writing prompt “I wish my teacher knew. . .” Responses varied from the practical (“I wish my teacher knew I don’t have pencils at home to do my homework,”) to the poignant (“I wish my teacher knew that my mom might get diagnosed with cancer this week and I’ve been without a home three different times this year alone.”) Reading these replies to Ms. Schwartz’ assignment caused me reflect upon my actions at school, as well as in the home. What can I do to remain focused on ensuring every child has his or her needs met? What must I do to understand my own children’s unique requirements and respond effectively? I believe there is value for all of us in listening to these young children communicate such varied needs as:
- “I wish my teacher knew how much I miss my Dad because he got deported to Mexico when I was three years old and I haven’t seen him in six years.”
- “I wish my teacher knew that I want to go to college.”
- “I wish my teacher knew I love animals and I would do anything for my animals.”
- “I wish my teacher knew that sometimes my reading log is not signed because my mom isn’t around a lot.”
- “I wish my teacher knew that my family and I live in a shelter.”
As I read each of the student reactions to the assignment, I was reminded of an experience I had as a student teacher in 1990. One of my 10th-graders (let’s call her “Jana”) had not turned in her homework at the beginning of class, which was unusual for her. After I had gotten the class going with an in-class assignment, I went to Jana’s desk and asked her if anything was wrong, explaining that I had noticed she had not submitted her homework. I will never forget her reply: “Well, Mr. Holland, last night my parents told me they were getting a divorce. A little bit later, my sick grandpa died; to be honest, English homework was not at the top of my list.” Nor should it have been. I talked with her for a few minutes, expressed my condolences and reassured her that if she needed to talk to someone, I was available. I also excused the assignment in my grade book.
I’ve reflected on this experience many times since; this instance of being “unconsciously competent” was a defining moment in my career. I was lucky enough to notice some unusual behavior and to investigate it, allowing me to respond appropriately. How often have I been too preoccupied to notice such warning signs? How often have all of us, parents, community members and school staff, been caught up in the thick of thin things and inadvertently missed out on a child’s critical need? Ms. Schwartz’ writings effectively drive home the truth that we must be vigilant in this regard if we want to “understand how those realities impact [children’s] learning.”
Kyle Schwartz’ goal in writing her book was to communicate how important it is for teachers to create a “sense of community” in the classroom and develop relationships with the children they see every day. Having worked with children, and adults in the service of children, for more than 27 years, I have had the privilege of seeing for myself what good teachers know and how frequently they do all they can to “take care of kids.” As the new school year arrives, I suggest that this is a worthy goal to which all adults should recommit.