Sunday, September 7, 2014

"You Make a Difference"

On Friday I received one of those emails that makes my breath catch and chokes me up a bit. You know, it is the one you want to print and hang up to read every morning so you'll remember what's important. The one you want to share with the world and simultaneously hold close to your heart.

It was an email from a former colleague who now has in 6th grade some beautiful kiddos I taught in 4th. That class is extraordinarily special to me because they are the class that almost killed me as a teacher. There was so much going on with those 30 amazing young people, and the intensity lived all balled up in our spacious and climate-controlled (ha!) classroom of 800 square feet. Each day was a test in survival and patience, and while they pushed me to my utmost limits not just as a teacher but as a human being, it also meant that I grew immensely because of them. For all our challenges we became a stronger community, and I'll never forget the number one concern expressed by kiddos in June when I asked why they were so nervous about 5th grade: "I'm afraid about our community being split apart, and I am worried that we won't build a new family like we had this year." Out of the mouths of babes, eh?

My babies on Valentine's Day, 2013. Heart you!
If you know me from my time in the classroom you know that instead of posting rules on the wall we had only Words to Live By, all chosen and created by the students, and we had Kohlberg's Stages of Morality. I'd been doing both these things since my first year teaching, but with this class I really relied on them to help us through every situation that came up. I also relied on our Words to Live By and Kohlberg's stages to keep myself grounded in why my work, though incredibly challenging, was important. I had to model what we talked about and make sure my kiddos knew how much I cared about them developing and taking ownership of the skills and mindsets necessary to contribute as a positive member of a community.

Our interpretation (a mountain we help classmates climb together) of Kohlberg's 6 Stages of Moral Development.
These guided our class discussions, read alouds, classroom management, and so much more each year.
The end of every year with my kiddos is (err, was - still getting used to that) always tough because I am sad to say goodbye and because I worry. I worry if I devoted the right amount of time to the right lessons, whether the way I empowered students to own their learning will benefit them in the short and long term, and most of all whether they will remember and follow through with all the work we put in to becoming better individuals and better community members. Each year I fret over these things and each year I remind myself to trust in myself and in them - to believe that the tools are in their toolbox and they need an opportunity to apply them without me being there to remind them so often. It is their chance to take full ownership of our Words to Live By and remember their importance, without seeing them on the wall every day.
The Words to Live By chosen by my first class of 5th graders.
Although I tell myself these things I can't deny the doubt that creeps in when they've been sent off to new teachers and new experiences. If I'm being honest I suppose part of the doubt is wondering whether I really made a difference, and if it was the right kind of difference, in their lives. Maybe that's one reason the texts and emails from students, and the stories of their successes, are so valuable to me. Perhaps that's why this email means so very much, especially as I process the start of my first full school year out of the classroom.

It is so nice to hear how they've remembered these lessons through the years, and it brings me great comfort to know they're with teachers who value and honor them as individuals. My teacher heart is so very happy right now, and I am reminded how crazy thankful I am for those 30 beautiful humans who changed my life for the better that year.