On Saturday, November 18, I had the pleasure of delivering an Ignite talk at NCTE. The following is a modified version of that (with a few extras thrown in as this blog does not come with the same constraints as a 5-minute Ignite talk!).
Before you begin reading the rest of this post, do me a favor. If there’s someone nearby, go to them, smile, and ask them how their day is going. Or tell them you’re glad to see them today. Or give them a small compliment. Or just say hi. If you’re not near anyone, pick up your phone and text someone something nice. I’ll wait.
Did you do it? If yes, continue. If no: I’m serious! Go do the thing. Then continue below.
How do you feel? I’m guessing that you feel just ever-so-slightly better than you did a moment ago. Nothing world-changing. Perhaps a similar feeling to a nice sip of a warm coffee or tea. Nothing to write home about, but certainly no worse than you felt before. And there’s a good chance that you feel just a little more connected to the world around you, and just a little better about the day.
But this post does not exist to make you feel good. Frankly, I don’t really care about making you feel good. I mean, I do, but there’s a good chance that, if you’re reading this, you’re an adult. You have ways to manage your own moods and temperaments. You might be reading this blog post for that very reason, as it tends to be a pretty positive place. But if you’re a teacher, you’re probably here for your students. So take a moment, and think about the student who has no choice but to be in your classroom. If you can, think of someone who hasn’t said a word — not a single word! — to you yet this year. I think there are more students like that out there than we may admit or realize.
I posit that having the sorts of brief, positive interactions you just had at the start of this post with your students is beneficial to both you and your students. But that’s sort of obvious, I think. Being kind and positive to your students is good for them? Super ground-breaking news, I know. But the key is it can’t just be once. Or twice. Or when you’re in a good mood. Or when they’re in a good mood.
It has to be every. Single. Day. You have to be hard to ignore. Because if I’m a student, and I want to shut down, I can do that so easily. All I have to do is nothing. Nothing is often the easiest thing to do. It’s simple to default to nothing. It’s easy to make myself invisible. To make myself nothing.
We know this isn’t good! Being nothing, as it turns out, is very bad. And if a student acts like they’re nothing, they will begin to feel — or perhaps already do feel — like they are nothing. And if they feel like they are nothing, then we have failed them, because each and every child who comes into our classroom is someone who has worth. Every child — even if they’re only there for one day — has value. Every child is deserving of celebration and deserving of love.
So you can’t be easy to ignore. Imagine you decide, for example, that you are going to greet every student at the door when they arrive to your room. And you do this for 3 or 4 days, but on the fifth day, your principal is talking with you, and on the sixth day, you’re just not feeling too good because it’s Monday, and on the seventh day you’re there again, but on the eighth day, you just have too much to prepare for the students inside the room that you can’t be at the door, and the ninth day, you stop greeting your students at the door because it’s a lot of work.
Well, guess what? It’s really easy to be a nothing student with a teacher who does that. The first few days, I can just give you the cold shoulder and take my seat. And then there were a couple days where I thought you stopped trying to greet me, so it was easier for me to be nothing. And then there was another day of it, and I thought “oh geez, she’s trying it again,” and then you stopped, and I went on being nothing. And I learned nothing except how to feel like nothing.
The students who think they are nothing need you to show them they are something Every. Single. Day. Because it’s easy to ignore the idea that I am something when I am not confronted by it. But it becomes really hard to continue on the path of believing I am nothing when I have someone who says hi to me every day, with my name, and they are smiling at me, and they say my hair looks nice, and I guess it does, but I walk past them because I don’t care and I don’t want them to care but they say hi to me with my name and a smile every day, asking about me as a person, not just me as a student, and they’ve been doing this for 3 months straight, and don’t they understand that I’m nothing?
Or maybe they know something I don’t. Maybe I’m not nothing. Maybe the reason they say hi to me is because I’m worth saying hi to. Maybe the reason they say they’re glad I’m here is because they’re glad I’m here. Maybe they want me here. Maybe I’m wanted. But who wants nothing? How can I be wanted and be nothing?
Maybe I’m not nothing. I’m not nothing. I’m something. I’m someone. I’m someone, and I’m wanted.
I believe that there is not a teacher out there who wants any of their students to feel like they are nothing. Guess what? YOU have the power to make every single student feel like they are someone. Let me repeat that. You have the power to make every single student feel like they are someone. Feel free to read that again and again until you understand it.
Do you know why you have that power? Because you’re the adult. You chose this profession. You chose to accept the job you’re in. You get to make these sorts of large-scale choices. The student doesn’t get to choose whether or not to come to school. They usually don’t get to choose their teachers. Their choices are limited. They can choose to act like they are nothing.
Also as an adult, you have the emotional maturity to act in ways you might not want to because you know it’s for the betterment of yourself and others. So you are the one who has to make the choice to say hello outside your door, with a smile, every day for 5 months straight to someone who acts like they are nothing and like you are nothing. Your degree is a contract that you will outwait your students. You will treat them like a person longer than they will treat you like not a person.
We have to do this. We have to do this because people who think they are nothing don’t graduate high school. People who don’t graduate high school are three times more likely to be unemployed than those who do. 80% of the incarcerated population in the US are high school dropouts. 70% of African-American males who don’t graduate high school are imprisoned by the time they are 30. We have to do this work.
And we’ve gotta love them all. We have to love the ones that are going to end up in prison, and the ones who love Drake as much as we do. We have to love the students who fail our courses as much as we do the ones who do the extra credit they don’t need because they just love our class that much. We have to love the ones who treat us like garbage as much as we do the ones who pick up the garbage in our classroom because they want to be nice. We MUST make sure EVERYONE who comes into our rooms knows they matter.
Because the student who thinks they’re a nobody? They drop out. And things are not great for those without high school diplomas in our current society. There aren’t the farming or factory jobs there used to be. Minimum wage isn’t enough to survive on, if they can even find those jobs. What often is available and provides enough income to survive on is illegal. There are things we need to address as a society, but we need to focus on what we can do with the students right in front of us.
Because those students who think they’re somebody? They try. They often don’t drop out. It might be hard. It might take them 3, 4, 5 dozen times before they really understand the concept. But if there’s someone who believes in them, they will do it.
So we have to be those people. We have to believe in them. If not us, who? If not now, when? Your students need you, the very day you arrive back in the classroom, to tell them you’re glad they’re there, as Pernille Ripp does with the sign outside her classroom (click the image for her blog post about this sign).
I cannot think of better words to add to that sign, but I will just say this: remember who is more important in the student-teacher relationship. It’s not the person with the name on the door and the degree on the wall. It’s the child whose creations are the reason you ran out of wall space and took your degree down to make room.
Because if you ask yourself who matters more in the student-teacher relationship and the answer is “I matter more than my students,” you will not change the lives of anyone in your care. You are the professional. You are the adult, and they are the still maturing human. For the hours they are in our care, they matter more than us. Their feelings matter more. And it is important they know they matter.
All of our students matter. Every single one — even the one who has only shown up to class 3 times this year. Even the one who might only set foot in your room once. Even the one who would sooner spit in your face than ask or answer a question. Every single student matters. It’s imperative that we help them see that in themselves. Every single day. Until each of them know they are more than nothing.