Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Most Important Lessons

Five years ago I changed my teaching forever. I was in my second year of teaching only language arts, but that wasn't it. Five years ago I had a tough class. I loved them, of course, as you do every class you teach. This class, though, needed lessons I had taught explicitly before. They needed more than lessons on how to fall in love with books or how to share your writing. They needed lessons on becoming better people. 

I have always argued that the books I have read have made me a better person. I think I am more empathetic, more caring, more aware of the world around me. Five years ago I began sharing that with my students. Explicitly teaching them character lessons through shared texts, YouTube videos, articles, and more. I pushed them to really think about their actions. We reflected on what makes us who we are. I discussed how the coolest thing about each of us is that we get to decide how we want to be seen through our actions and our words. 

Each year I seem to dive into this work deeper. I am now convinced that the greatest gift I can give my students is self-awareness. I can help them become the best version of their selves that they can be. Of course we do this through reading and writing, so curriculum is still taught, but nothing is as important to me as being a good person. If we all did that, the world could be a better place. 

Except when it isn't.

My oldest son had a football game this weekend. Football at the middle school level is interesting. Some boys have already grown, others are still similar to when I had them two or three years ago. However, their smiles are still the ones I know. I love watching them. 

Yesterday's game was tough. The team we played was skilled. There were some ugly penalties, but that happens. Their coach was a bit over exuberant, but that happens. What I didn't expect to happen was for one of our players to be called names based on the color of his skin. 

Apparently it went on all game, but at the end of the game was when I became aware of it. First, by a rude comment someone from their side of the field called out. Then, by our player's ejection from the game. It seems he had had enough and pushed the other player who had been saying these words to him for the entire game. Going to that side of the field, I was met with shocked parents who had heard it going on the entire game. One of the refs heard it too and finally ejected the other child from the game as well.

The game was over by that point. Our boys came to the sideline and I saw tears streaming down their faces. They walked through the line to shake hands, including the boy who had been dealing with racial slurs the entire game. Watching our boys in the post-game huddle was hard. Tears were flowing freely. Two of my current students came up to talk to me about it. One looked at me and said, "That player on their team must not have a teacher who tells them to pay attention to their moral compass." I smiled.

Our players came off the field. I hugged a few, consoled my son who was shook up by the entire experience. I said a few words to my former student who had just experienced hatred when he should have had a great day playing football. 

Yesterday reminded me that what I am doing is important. Children are clay, waiting to be molded. We can help them be the best versions of themselves that they can be, or the worst. As teachers, we didn't go into this job thinking our responsibility was anything but the written curriculum, however I would argue it is this hidden curriculum that matters the most. We can make an impact on a child's life that last a lifetime. I was beyond proud of my current and former students last night. Their character shone bright. It will be a lesson I will share with my class on Monday. It is the most important lesson I can teach.