There is nothing more humbling that having a fourteen year old living in your household. In addition to openly scoffing at the number of views my TEDx video has received, my son has informed me that my talks can be "a bit of a downer" and that all I do is make people cry. Nice. But I get it. Fourteen year old boys aren't enormously receptive to heartfelt conversations. And he's right, we tend to learn best when we are able to balance some laughter with the tears. His advice is occasionally lacking in tact, but he's definitely got his own unique brand of wisdom. So, despite his sometimes less than glowing feedback on my work, I welcome his perspective, and I quite often seek out his opinion and insight.
This "fourteen year old perspective" has been especially helpful lately as I've continued to explore the relationship between connectedness and student learning and achievement. I speak to educators about the importance of learning our students' stories, in order to best support, celebrate, and build upon their diverse skills and abilities. I passionately believe that before we can move our students forward into new learning, we need to understand where they are now.
But what I have also been reminded of, with the help of my son, is the importance of educators being able to share their stories as well. In a recent conversation, he agreed that he appreciates it when his teachers take the time to learn about his life, his successes and his challenges. That it helps him to connect with his teachers, and ultimately with the curriculum. However, he then added, "But mom, teachers like it when I ask about their lives too...".
Because after all, relationships are reciprocal. Sharing goes both ways.
As beginner teachers, we are often cautioned to maintain our professional distance, to set firm boundaries and expectations with our students. "Don't smile until Christmas" is still a common mantra for "classroom management". Thinking back to when I started teaching, I followed this same advice- I thought that if I let my students see that I didn't have all of the answers, that I was "less than perfect", that it would somehow undermine my role. To me, respect equalled control. Sharing my vulnerabilities with my students seemed inconceivable. Unprofessional. Risky. But maintaining that veneer was exhausting. It wasn't who I am.
And so, I began to share my stories...
I distinctly remember the first time that I cried in front of my students. I was teaching them how to write a narrative essay, and we were using the generic prompts from past provincial exams as exemplars. The topic on that day was "Beauty can be found in simple things." My students were struggling with the topic, and with the time constraints imposed by the rigid exam format. In an attempt to model the writing process, I told my students that on that day, I would write alongside them, and then be the first to share my finished draft. We put our heads down, and started to write, and at the end of the allotted time, I began to read.
I had written about the birth of my son... my now fourteen year old son. About seeing his brilliantly blue eyes for the first time. About the mixture of wonder and fear that I felt in that moment. And much to my horror, as I began to read aloud, I started to cry... I was mortified. I had broken the "rules" that I had worked so hard to establish with my students. I took a moment to collect myself, and then quickly transitioned into a "safer" portion of the lesson.
But here's what I noticed almost immediately. My students connected with my story. And they felt safe to begin to share their own. By taking the risk of being vulnerable with my students, I gave them permission to do the same. By letting go of some of that rigid "control" that I had established, I gained so much more. It was truly one of the most impactful moments of my teaching career. I understood that I couldn't ask my students to do something that I wasn't willing to do myself.
I'm not suggesting that teachers share every aspect of their private lives. Clear boundaries are important to maintaining respectful, caring relationships in a school community. But by sharing our stories with our students, we invite them to do the same. And in my current role, I see the importance of extending this same practice to my staff. I value their stories, their context, in the same way that I do each of the 1200 students in my school.
As Richard Wagamese writes, when we "take the time share those stories with each other, we get bigger inside, we see each other, we recognize our kinship -- we change the world, one story at a time..."