Kris and I were together in the second-half of last week, doing some work with our National Alliance for Engagement-Based Education colleagues from the Center for Inspired Teaching. We were talking over lunch on Friday about our own school experience when I asked Kris if there were any particular year of her own schooling that was her favorite. She couldn’t really identify one, and when she asked me the same question, my answer was easy: 7th grade.
Middle school is often tumultuous, and truth-be-told, that’s one of the main reasons I wanted to teach in those grades. I deeply believe that every pre- and young teen should have access to a trusted adult who isn’t in their family.
Seventh grade was a year with some great learning about American history, and here’s the clearest example of what I mean: Mr. Reilly had our grade-level team enact a democratic government. We had senators and a governor in each class, and there was a federal government that spanned the entire team. We thought we had rights, at least until our tyrannical teacher insisted we didn’t. He put notices on our lockers telling us that all the contents were now his, and we had to go to war with him and his army of stuffed animals to defend our liberties (Nerf guns were involved). Mr. Reilly brought history to life in a way that we could understand; he required that we feel empathy, and he held high expectations for us as students and as people.
I historically didn’t love social studies; my father took us on so many vacations to reenactments and battlefields that it’s now a joke in my family that I only ever wanted to go to the gift shop (or gift tent, because where else would you find a bonnet at a Civil War encampment?). My family tried to give me opportunities to bring history to life, but they didn’t take. But in Mr. Reilly’s classroom? I was totally engaged.
I did my best work when my teachers helped bring their content to life, or more specifically, to my life.
And I needed that focus and engagement in middle school. My mom died when I was eleven and in the sixth grade (which is also why, despite excellent teachers, sixth grade could never be a pinnacle year for me). That year, I had extraordinary teachers who showed me compassion, who respected the overwhelmingly mature grieving that I was forced to do, and who, I think, loved me. Mrs. Rosenberger, my English teacher, was a wonderful woman whom I deeply admired. She was genuinely kind, and she pushed me in gentle ways, helping me get back into the work while allowing me the latitude I needed to process the incredibly complex emotions I was navigating. She came to my mom’s funeral, as did all of the teachers on my team (save one, who lost her daughter the same day I lost my mom), and I’m not even sure I can put into words how much it meant to see them there. I think that was actually the first moment in my educational career where I understood that teachers aren’t and shouldn’t only be there for academics, but rather should be people who care about all of their students as humans.
Mrs. Wood was my science teacher in 7th grade, and I felt about her much like I felt about Mrs. Rosenberger; her class was interesting and one of my favorite science classes ever (I still have an affinity for the life sciences), but I also trusted her and knew I could go to her. I was privileged to have many teachers through 6th, 7th, and 8th grade who paid careful attention to me.
Building these relationships, specifically having my teachers invite my full reality into my school life, saved me. This isn’t to say that I didn’t have many people including family and friends watching out for me, talking to me, and helping me. But all of those folks knew me well before my mom’s death, and I sometimes thought they felt an obligation to my mom to help me bear the weight of her loss. My teachers were doing this because of me, and whether or not they saw something in me that they intentionally wanted to kindle, that’s what they did. They reassured me, they comforted me, and they told me in both explicit and implicit ways that I mattered.
I believe that the best thing we can do for anyone else is to allow them to feel seen, heard, and validated. Teachers have an incredible opportunity to do this, and it all starts with getting to know your students. Thank you, to those of you who saw me.
Image courtesy of Sara Bailey.