Human beings have a choice. We have choices every minute of every day.
I find myself constantly talking about this with my fourth-grade students. My fourth graders can choose to meet our classroom expectations. They can choose to be kind and choose to have integrity. They can choose to include others, go out of their way to be helpful, and participate authentically in classroom discussions. They can choose to fill one another up, complete their assignments on time, and push through challenges.
They have choices.
Educators, too, have a choice.
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It was the middle of October. The freshness of a new school year had worn off, Thanksgiving break was far from sight, my “perfect” bulletin boards weren’t so perfect anymore, and it was 1:45 PM on a Thursday afternoon.
I quickly walked back to my classroom after a much-needed bathroom break to find my students up and out of their seats. They were loud, messing around with one another, and things were all over the place.
At this moment, as I entered my classroom, I had a choice to make.
Was I going to raise my voice? Was I going to call out students who were not meeting expectations? How would I reset the classroom? Exactly what would I say?
I recently had to miss a day of school for a training. I left thorough plans and spoke with my students ahead of time. The next morning I did what most of us teachers would do: I got to work early, held my breath to see the condition of my classroom, and rushed to see the note the substitute left.
The substitute shared that one student of mine was a particular challenge. This student was disrespectful, rude, and was a disruption on multiple occasions.
Again, I had a choice to make.
Was I going to talk with this student? Would I ignore these behaviors since I was not there? Was I going to keep this student inside from recess? Would this student have to do something to “rectify” their actions?
In both of these examples, the choice I made was simple: empathy.
For me, choosing empathy looks like building students up. It looks like celebrating greatness in the classroom by focusing on all of the positive things that are taking place. Most importantly, it looks like remembering that students are going through more now than I can even begin to wrap my head around.
We did not attend school in the midst of a global pandemic.
We were not forced to sit six feet from our friends, wear a mask all day, and be scared that we may do something that might cause us or our loved ones to be sick.
And so, I enter each and every conversation that I have with students with this in mind.
While part of me wanted to call out my students who were up and out of their seats I chose to celebrate the students who were meeting expectations.
While part of me wanted to have my student write a letter to the substitute about their behavior, I chose to have a restorative conversation about the role all students play in our classroom community.
I am constantly reflecting on all that our students are facing and use this framework to guide each and every encounter that I have.
Imagine an education system where all educators buy into this idea of empathy in schools. As I work to build an inclusive, anti-racist, and equitable education system this approach is vital. The words we choose to say matter. They can transform lives for the better.
Teachers: our work is exhausting. Days are long and weeks can feel even longer. However, even in the toughest moments, remember that your students are watching. They are actively listening and looking at you. Show up with empathy. They will thank you for it.
Check out my interview with Kyle to hear more!
Here are a few key excerpts from our conversation…
About the unique challenges this school year:
It’s important to remember this is our third school year of dealing with the impacts of the pandemic on our education system and on our students and on ourselves as educators. And given that this is year three, I’m actually experiencing this empathy fatigue this year more than I did last year, more than I did the year before.
And I also think some of the challenges that at least I’m experiencing are greater now than we have experienced thus far. I mean, the national labor shortage that everyone is experiencing across all sectors is hitting us really hard in terms of substitutes. We have virtually no substitutes, so every morning I’m showing up and I’m trying to figure out what my role is, where I’m covering, and then worrying about everything I need to do for my students.
That’s an additional burden we’re facing this year. And then we’re also really seeing the impact of the pandemic on academics. Like I have fourth graders who started this pandemic in first grade and we are now seeing these very real academic gaps. But last year we had the pandemic actually as an excuse. So it was okay, right? “If students are falling a little bit behind, it’s not a big deal … [or] the tests don’t matter this year.”
And something that I love so much about what you’ve been sharing is how are we going to reimagine our schools? Last year we had that opportunity for maybe giving more time to project-based learning or giving more time to these things that we love doing in the classroom with students. That’s not my experience this year … this year, my students are expected to pass with flying colors.
About choosing to consider how this school year feels for students:
During my schooling experience, I was not forced to wear a mask, sit three feet away from my friends. I was not having teachers who were this stressed out all the time. At least I don’t remember [that], right? All of these things and our kids see everything, they pick up on everything and I am so conscious of the fact that this wasn’t my experience, and I can’t change that.
But what I can do is I can shift my mindset. I can control everything that I can, here in the classroom and constantly coming from a place of like, how can I build these relationships with students in a positive way? How can I make sure I’m showing up with empathy so that I’m not destroying any of these relationships and how can I be the educator that they deserve at a time when they really need it most.
About planning fun lessons to re-energize and gain energy from students:
The biggest thing for me when I am feeling this exhaustion — especially when it comes to all things — empathy is planning a very fun lesson. As a fourth-grade teacher, a huge reason why I went into this field is to create incredible fun learning moments for kids. I worked at summer camp my entire life. I just love being with kids. And so any opportunity I can find to just plan something fun fuels me up — that brings me joy.
And for me, when I’m having some of my most challenging weeks or days, following that up with a lesson that reminds me why I became an educator to begin with [is] the fuel I need. I don’t need external praise from anybody. I don’t need people to tell me how awesome I am. I don’t need any of that. I want to see joy in my students. And that will do it for me a lot of the time.
About surrounding yourself with positive educators:
I really try to avoid negativity. In my school, I work with phenomenal people, but as educators, we have so much stress going on and so much that we’re dealing with that sometimes that energy for me is really negative. And that will sometimes look like for me, maybe that day, I need to not eat lunch in the teacher’s lounge, or maybe that day I need to not have that unnecessary conversation with a colleague that might not make me leave feeling the happiest.
So knowing that like, “Okay, maybe today is a day I kind of just need to keep to myself, be with my students, do my thing because that’s the fuel that I need.” So it’s really being conscious of those things.
About reconnecting with the purpose that motivates you:
I believe that every kid in this country deserves a very high-quality, equitable education. And I believe that as a nation, we are so far from making that a reality. And my why on this day and every day is just working to get us one step closer to the ultimate goal of one day, every kid in this nation will have an education they deserve.
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