The story behind my good morning messages is a heartbreaking one. Grab your tissues… you are going to need them. This is a story I believe every teacher needs to read.
When Good Morning Isn’t Enough
I remember the day like it was yesterday even though it’s been more than a few years.
Something was wrong with my student. I couldn’t figure out what it was even though I had asked. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly how I knew, I just did.
We went about our day but it kept nagging at me.
It returned the next day with him. I thought it was something minor. I knew his home life wasn’t the best. I thought he would be fine soon. He was just adjusting to a change. I tried to shrug it off.
For 2 days, I watched. I carefully interacted with him until he was ready to tell me.
We were sitting there, criss-cross applesauce in a circle on the carpet, under the anchor charts in a corner of my room. The whisper was so small. “My brother is dead.”
Everyone froze. Some students hung their heads as tears began to fall and I realized that more than this child had been off in my room this week but he, he had somehow gathered my full attention.
Then he said it again. Angry and loud. “My brother is dead. He hid me under his body as they shot up our house and he is dead.” Tears ran down his face as he finished with a stutter, his voice fading out, “He died protecting me and… and now there is no one left.”
We all cried with him as he crawled into my lap. His little shoulders shaking as his body was ravaged by tears of anger and sorrow. My fifth grader suddenly seemed so small. My big hulking wanna-be-football star was now curled up in a ball.
I was at a loss of words so I just held him and cried. I listened as his classmates filled me in on the details of that awful Sunday night. I learned how he never slept before greeting me at the door on Monday morning.
And that stain on his shoes… was his brother’s blood. He refused to tell the police officers as he didn’t want them taken away. It was the last thing his brother had given him.
You see, his mother died when he was an infant of an overdose. His dad was in prison for selling drugs. His 19 year old sister had custody of him and his 14 year old brother was the one who parented him.
And he was now gone.
I had struggled all week through my lesson plans. I thought about those standardized tests coming up and how we are not going to make our goals if I can’t get my students to focus.
And now… now I realize that the story I had been hearing on the news was living in my classroom.
How could you not know?
I lived in a gigantic city. My home was an hour away on a good day. Since “the incident” was under investigation, my administration was told not to tell me. That it was best for the student to not think about it while in the classroom. If I didn’t know then I wouldn’t do anything different than normal.
It Only Takes One
That day, my student changed me. I am a better teacher because of the lessons he taught me.
You see, I stood at the door and greeted him each day. I knew well enough to know something was wrong. He trusted me enough to tell me eventually but he had to find the time he could speak.
Once a week we sat there criss-cross applesauce on the floor together and talked. We talked about our story of the week and what we had learned but it always got off topic. For 30 minutes a week, I sat on the floor and listened to my students speak about anything their hearts desired.
This is when he felt he could share. He had waited for this time because this is the only time of the week I had carved time out of our precious schedule for my students to speak freely about anything. This was the time when my students felt that our relationship mattered more than the lesson.
The rest of the time we learned. Our routine was a greeting, bell work, lesson plans, and we talk on Thursday after lunch.
He had waited with his heart shattered for that moment. For that one time each week that I was ready to listen.
Thursday Wasn’t Enough
I spent a lot of time reflecting and crying that weekend. I came to the decision that a simple “Good Morning and a handshake” will never be enough in my classroom. It would never happen again.
Never again would a student of mine wait until I had time in my lesson plans to listen.
Never again would a student of mine feel like they had to wait to speak.
On Monday morning, I walked into my classroom and began a new procedure that is still going strong to this day.
Instead of teaching a set of lessons, I began building a community. I showed my students I valued them every day by my actions.
Preparing A Place
Just as I had been taught and many teachers before me have done and still do, our the end of the day procedure included the students putting their chairs up on their desks.
At the beginning of the next day students say hello at the door, put away their things, gather a pencil and an assignment, go to their assigned desk, put down their chair, and prepare themselves a place to learn.
This was the first thing to go.
Our Heavenly Father prepares a place for us. He is waiting to greet us and excited to see us when we arrive. He doesn’t say “I am glad you are here. Put your things away and go prepare yourself a spot.” No… He is waiting for us. He is eager for our arrival and we can tell he is eager because He has prepared a place for us.
This was the example I looked to. I know not everyone believes in God but I do. This example along with my student was a game changer for me.
Think of it another way. You walk into a restaurant. They greet you. They tell you were to grab the menu from and tell you to go prepare a spot for yourself. The chairs are stacked there. Just grab what you need.
Would you feel welcome? Would you believe that they were eager to see you? Would you want to come back? No.
Yet we do this to our students every day.
I know it takes time, valuable time that I don’t have BUT my students are what I value most. I needed to start showing them I was eager for their arrival.
So I prepare for them each day.
I take down their chairs. I place a sharpened pencil on their desk and I go stand at my door way earlier than I should eagerly anticipating when I see the first smiling face round the corner of the hallway. Occasionally I leave a special treat or note.
As I wait, I greet teachers and staff members rushing by. I silently pray they all had a good night and that we will have a great day.
Sometimes, I have a student come in early and they help me prepare. Together we chat and wait for the others to arrive. My students know that I am expecting them. I have prepared for them and I will know if they are not there.
More than Good Morning
I created a positive quote for us to reflect upon. I started out by carefully writing it on the whiteboard but quickly moved to PowerPoint. PowerPoint saves a lot of time.
My students could respond to this in whatever matter they chose to. The rules were the same as bell work. You must work on your own and silently. I did the things that I was required to do.
THEN… I set a timer for 5 minutes.
Every morning we chat. I put it on the lesson plan. I carved out the time. Never again would my student wait until Thursday. Some days we only need 2 minutes, some days its 8. Either way is fine with me.
I began waiting for my students to be ready to learn.
It made all of the difference. My test scores went up and the discipline issues went down. I was asked to mentor struggling students and their teachers.
Most importantly, my students knew by my actions that they were valued and cared for in my classroom. Yes, learning happens but it is not the only thing that happens.
We are a community of learners. Each unique. Each one carefully prepared for on a daily basis. Each one wanted and valued.