As we near the holiday season, the following story, which forever shaped me as an educator and a person, reminds me of all I have to be thankful for and why I became a teacher.
How was your [Winter] break? A seemingly innocuous question, or so I thought.
As a teacher I greeted each student as they entered my class. When I greeted them with a question, they were required to answer and ask a question of their own. This little procedure set the tone for my class and was a little step in establishing a caring and supportive environment.
On the first day back from winter break, I asked Jon, one of my better students, “How was your break?”
“It sucked. Did yours?”
Totally caught by surprise, I stammered, “Jon, come here. Let’s talk.”
“I don’t wanna talk about it.”
I stood silently, miffed. What had I missed? He’d been in my class for several months and I had never noticed anything dire. What’s going on in his life? He obviously wants to talk about it, otherwise he would’ve just said, “[My weekend was] fine.”
While students individually worked, I approached Jon and whispered, “Why don’t you stay after, so we can talk. It’ll just take a minute.”
When the bell rang Jon made a beeline for the door, showing no intention of sticking around. Reluctantly, I let him go.
I spent lunch asking his other teachers if they knew of anything going on in Jon’s life; none did. I spent the rest of the day and night concerned and contemplating. Do I call home? Do I just let it go? How can I get him to open up? Eventually, I wrote Jon a simple note, “I don’t know what’s going on in your life. But, I promise you that I’ll be here for you whenever you’re ready to talk.” The next day, when I handed him the note, he averted his eyes, seemingly unmoved. Over the next couple of days, I gently offered to listen, to support him.
The days turned into weeks. The weeks turned into months. Jon became increasingly detached, yet he continued to earn good grades. For Jon, school masked his problems and served as an escape from the harsh realities of his home.
I agonized over Jon’s situation until one day when Jon stopped by my room before school. He remained guarded and purposefully vague, but over the next few weeks he slowly opened up. We often ate breakfast together. Every morning, I packed an extra banana for Jon, hoping that he’d pop into my classroom.
Over the next few months I learned his step-father was abusive, the family was losing their home, his older brother was a drug user, food was scarce, and few, if any, gifts were exchanged on Christmas.
I knew the family struggled financially, but embarrassingly I failed to realize the scope of the issues. Jon saw school as a way out of his misery, thus masking many of the problems (or so, I reasoned).
For Jon and for far too many students, we must consider what school means to them. For many, it’s their only hot meal for the day. For some it means running water. For others it’s an escape from misery. For far too many, school may be the only place they feel physically and emotionally safe.
I’d like to believe that I helped Jon. In truth, I learned so much from him. I realized I didn’t know my students as well as I thought; I pledged to myself and to all my future students that I’d do anything and everything to learn who they really were.
Only once we truly know our students–their pasts, their neighborhoods, their families, their lives–are we able to meet their needs. As educators, we must strive to meet our students where they are, to provide them with everything they need, and only then will we be able to help them grow and learn.
For these invaluable lessons, I’m thankful for Jon, who taught me to be forever thankful for my students and all of the issues they bring with them.
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Reed is a longtime educator and coach, who is passionate about progressive learning and 21st-century assessment practices. Read more of his work here. "I'm a co-moderator of #VAchat, a Twitter conversation for Virginia (and non-Virginian) educators that meets Monday's at 8 ET. Most importantly, I'm a father of four wonderful children and a couple grandchildren. In my free time, I enjoy cooking, reading, sports and, of course, spending time with family."