This post contains gentle suggestions to teachers of all ages, in all types of schools, in all types of learning situations. I wish someone had given me this insight back when I was a classroom teacher, or, better yet, when I was in college studying how to be an effective teacher.
Please be sensitive to peer groupings. Even the kindest children are prone to over generalization and cliquish behavior because it is comfortable to hang out with the same few students over and over. Unfortunately, if you happen to be one of those students who is habitually “left out,” classroom assignments where students choose partners become a source of intense self shame. I’m speaking from experience on this one: it is no fun to be the last one without a partner. It is far better for teachers to draw names from a jar or to group students themselves rather than allow students to consistently pick their own. Get them out of their comfort zones. This practice will help them see that there is value in every person, even in those kids that other kids tend to avoid because they laugh a little too loudly or have zits or wear their hair on the left side rather than the right. If you happen to be a new kid in the middle of a group of new kids, being chosen last is a double whammy — these kids are left feeling as if they don’t belong, as if there is something about them that is inherently unlikable. All sorts of stinkin thinkin can arise from these situations. Teachers don’t intend to perpetuate these kinds of slights. But these snubs, perceived or real, do happen daily unless and until teachers make a concerted effort to mix up the groups. (By the way, mixing it up is good for ladies Bible study groups, too!)
Teachers can help students succeed socially when they make a regular practice of getting to know their students beyond just being educational repositories. I had an exceptionally tough chemistry teacher who will always be beloved in my heart because she noticed me. I mattered to her. Her class was my first one of the day, and in the winter time I’d come into the room with hands that were literally blue from being so cold. My little puddle jumper of a car had a heater that didn’t begin heating until I pulled into the parking lot. So Mrs. Lewis lit a bunsen burner for me on those cold days so I could warm my hands before the class began. It was a little thing, but here I sit, twenty two years later, remembering a kindness that was done to me by a teacher who noticed.
Remember as you plan lessons that your students are under a great deal of pressure. Please bend over backwards to avoid changing an assignment mid-stream because some of your students will have already completed the homework as it was originally assigned. In a home like ours where free time is nonexistent, having to re-do an assignment on the fly adds fuel to the burnout flame. Even if a student had not already completed the assignment, he may have arranged his work load to accommodate weightier projects on certain days only to find that he now has to juggle in a third or a fourth major project when the time budget was for one. This juggling act is a skill that many adults do not adequately possess! Surely those students who learn to manage and make adjustments will go on to success. But in the meantime their parents who are supervising their children’s workloads might die of a heart attack or stroke!
Work in some planned mercy. One of my daughter’s teachers purposefully left this weekend FREE of homework. Can I tell you how joyful that makes our entire household feel? My daughter intends to stay up until midnight tonight if that’s what it takes to get all her homework completed for the weekend. Maybe other kids and their parents at her school know how to budget their time, but my child has literally had ZERO days off since she started school on January 4. None. Zippo. She has had to take both Saturday and Sunday to work on this paper or that project, and although she’s slowly learning that she does not need to spend three hours making her science journal pretty, she is desperate for some margin. Even if any of the kids at her school had extended friendship and invited her over to hang out over this past month, she would have had to turn them down because every waking minute has been consumed with school work.
Try to pay attention to the ones who may be standing outside the fence. See your students for who they really are. Is one student habitually alone? Find out if this is by choice (natural introvert) or through some other means. If you are in a Christian school, use your teacher position to model and discuss what it means to love the least of these. Jesus walked among lepers! Ask your students if they have ever shown favoritism or treated each other like lepers or had thoughts about each other that are not godly or if they have gossiped. Are they being intentional about expanding their circle?
While one of the reasons we switched to the University Model School was for the opportunities afforded her in group work and social opportunities, it has not yet panned out the way any of us thought. Everyone is NICE, but no one has scratched the surface to try to get to know my beautiful, wonderfully-made girl child outside of school. And my heart breaks in two as I see her struggle with the same things I did — being the last one chosen. Being the nerd. Going to sit in chapel and finding that there weren’t any seats left with the friends you thought you had in your class because no one saved you a seat, and you hadn’t thought to ask. Over time these sorts of things add up to an emotionally distraught girl who begins to see herself in a negative way…and I am at a loss as a mother. What can I do besides spend time on my knees?
I know God has a beautiful plan in place for my girl. I want her to know she is a daughter of the King whether anyone picks her first for a group, or last, or anything in between. She has value. She is loved. And my prayer is that in time the sweet girls in her school will actually get to know her and will love her ultimately as Jesus loves her, and that she will also get to know them and love them as Jesus loves them. That she will blossom and become confident in the young woman of God that she is. That she will not feel ashamed of those things that make her unique. That she will embrace the way the Lord knit her together in my womb. That the Lord will toughen her skin and help her learn how to be a friend without compromising who she is. So she likes Star Trek and physics and MythBusters and Dr. Who. Does that make her an outcast? My daughter is a brilliant student. An exceptionally gifted writer. A deep thinker. A talented artist, actress, and pianist. She has a kind heart and lives for doing things to help encourage others. She has a beautiful smile that lights up a room. She has a well developed sense of humor and loves to laugh. Of course, if I tell her these things she shrugs it off because, after all, I’m just her mom. Of course I think these things about her.
What I want her to see is that GOD thinks these things about her, as well. He’s the One who made her who she is!
Teachers, you will do your students a huge service when you encourage them to be all that they can be. When you embrace them, love them, pray for them, notice them, encourage them, and structure class time in purposeful ways so that being selected to be in a group or to present a project doesn’t feel like a popularity contest.
I’m climbing off my high horse, now. That is all.