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From the Introduction to I Wish My Teacher Knew

Doull Elementary is not much different from schools across America. Our sixty-year-old school wraps around a hundred-year-old oak tree. On the south side of our building is a wide green baseball field. To the east are a soccer field and a vibrant community garden where the kindergarten students plant pumpkins and neighbors grow corn, cabbage, and sunflowers. Embedded into our sidewalk are metal plaques that list facts about each planet in the solar system, and our playground is capped with a plastic, gray climbing wall that looks like a rock formation. Our school is full of professionals who dedicate themselves to building on our students’ strengths and meeting our community’s needs.

Every morning, families who love their children and who value education struggle to wake up sleepy students and send them off to school. School bells ring and doors fling open to let in eager students. There is a stampede of feet rushing up the stairs and busy hands scramble to hang up their coats.

Just like at every school, each day my students bring so much more than just their backpacks to school. There is no magic device that separates the troubles and joys of their home life as they walk through our doors. Each student brings a lifetime of memories, thoughts, and feelings. As teachers we need to honor this. We must recognize how these widely diverse experiences shape our students and impact their academic development.

Our school community is strong, but we face challenges—challenges that are all too familiar to many schools in America. During the 2013–14 school year, 90 percent of our students lived in poverty. More than half of our students speak a language other than English at home. In my own classroom during the 2015–16 school year, about one-third of my students qualify to receive special education services. There are many schools, nationwide, with similar statistics.

As teachers, we can sometimes become overwhelmed by the very real challenges our students face. But it’s equally important to remember our students’ strengths. We should place equal value on their interests and curiosities, because these passions can motivate our students to become engaged learners. As educators, it is our responsibility to empathize with the realities our students face and understand how those realities impact their learning. By leveraging the resources within our communities, we can work to remove barriers that hamper our students’ ability to learn.

There is only one way to do this. It is to form relationships with our students and actively build strong communities inside our classrooms. As educators, we are teaching more than subjects and concepts; we are teaching people. James Comer, a leading child psychiatrist once said, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” Therefore, as a teacher who is primarily responsible for learning, I am also in the business of relationship building.

The most important thing I do in my classroom is to actively build community. Without that, true, passionate, joyful learning is a hard goal to achieve. I do this by creating relationships with my students and their families. I make sure that they feel cared about and heard.

Building community begins the very first second I see my students. I show up every day to teach an amazing group of third graders. I clap words into syllables, I collect field trip forms and picture money, and I try to make sure Ali doesn’t pour glue on Julia’s head . . . again. I make sure to greet my students each morning by saying, “I’m so glad you are here” and “I care about you, do you believe me?”

One day a student responded, “Ugh . . . yes, I know you care about me. You tell me that all the time!” That was the best eye roll I’ve ever gotten as a teacher! Creating a sense of community continues throughout the school day. It is in the comfortable seats I provide for my students. It happens when I hand them a book I know they will love or show my genuine thrill that a yellow belt in karate was finally earned. It is in the way I comfort them when they are hurt and laugh at inside jokes we share.

There are a million little ways that I actively build community in my classroom. As you read this book, I am sure you will realize that there are a million little ways you do this in your classrooms and offices every day too. Much to my surprise, one of the little ways I built community went “viral.” It was a simple exercise: I asked a question and listened for the answer.  

As a first-year teacher, I worried about how much I didn’t know about my students. I explained to them that I wanted to get to know them better. I wrote, “I wish my teacher knew . . .” on the board and asked them to complete the sentence.

Each student’s response was unique. They responded with honesty, humor, and vulnerability. Sometimes their notes talked about their favorite sport. Sometimes students complained about conflict with siblings or friends. They wrote about their home life and the people who meant most to them. Sometimes they articulated their hopes for the future and sometimes they explained obstacles they were facing. After completing this lesson, I was amazed at how well it helped me connect with my students. Their notes became a tangible reminder for me to truly listen to the voices of students in my classroom.

It was always a meaningful lesson for me, but the problem was that the power of the lesson stayed inside Room 207. I did not share the idea with my colleagues. I thought that a simple question wasn’t important enough to share.

That was until one night when my cat knocked over a basket and out tumbled a crumpled orange note I had saved. In shaky handwriting it read: “I wish my teacher knew I don’t have pencils at home to do my homework.” As I reread those words, I felt the same ache as the first time I had read them. I thought of my former student, and how even though she didn’t always have access to basic resources, she still came to school every day so willing to try, willing to struggle, and willing to learn.

After years of teaching, I have learned the sad reality is that her situation was far from unique. I wondered what the millions of children in our country’s classrooms would say to their teachers if given the opportunity. I decided to share the activity with other teachers. I took a picture of the note with my cell phone and uploaded it to my new Twitter account. I typed in this girl’s words and hit the Tweet button.

My goal in posting this little girl’s note was to share a simple message with other educators: that students will share their realities with us if we simply give them an invitation. The real power of this exercise, and why so many people responded to it, has to do with the raw truth of the student’s’ words. When we are willing to really listen, our students might feel safe enough to express their truth. As teachers we need to ask, so that students will answer. But we also need to listen, so our students  are heard.

Soon I began to get messages from around the world. I heard from teachers inspired to ask their students the same question and who began to share their responses. States away, fellow teachers had their students complete the simple sentence. Notes written on index cards began to form meaningful relationships between teachers and students.

Once the response on social media gained momentum, the news media took notice. A journalist from ABC News wrote a blog post and the idea took off from there. I was taken aback as news cameras rushed to our school. On one hand, I was surprised that humble handwritten notes could cause such a stir, but on the other hand, I think that the challenges our students face and the incredible work happening daily in our classrooms deserve attention.

It should make headline news that there are so many dedicated students who do not have pencils at home, but it doesn’t. There should be outrage that many American children attend schools that lack necessary resources to teach them. We need to demand change. We must take action, both inside and outside the classroom, so that the American public education system is worthy of the brilliant students it serves. Harnessing the collective power of the voices of teachers, students, and their families is our best chance of creating the equitable system our country needs.

I believe in my students, and not just because that is what I’m supposed to do as a teacher. I hold a firm belief that my students will change the world. I warn each of them that if I don’t get an invitation to their graduation, I will show up anyway. I am always telling my students, “The day I get to vote for one of you will be the happiest day of my life,” and I mean it. I believe in my students because I know them. I see their potential, and I need that potential to be realized so that our city and our world become a better place.

Imagine a world in which every child’s potential is valued; where every child receives the excellent education they deserve. What would our government look like? What would our neighborhoods look like? What would our schools look like? What would our classrooms look like? What would school be  like if we asked students to tell us what we adults don’t know?

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