Jacob Waters has been teaching for 3 years at Mastery Charter School – Smedley Elementary in Philadelphia. A former Teach for America Corps Member, his thoughts on education policy can be found here or on Twitter @skepticspol.
Each morning when students arrive at my school, I stand at the door and hold out my left arm. Even though the caffeine from my coffee hasn’t yet made it through my bloodstream, I smile and prepare myself for the approximately 500 high-fives I will receive in the next fifteen minutes. Thank God for hand sanitizer.
Teachers today are expected to devote a majority of our energy to lesson plans, complicated curricula and instructional strategies. On one level, that makes sense, because the increasingly horrifying data about the achievement gap and its long-term implications are a harsh reminder of the necessity for effective, efficient teaching, especially in “high-need” schools.
Yet we can’t forget that our kids’ “needs” are not merely academic. At my school, nearly all of the kids live around or below the poverty line; the community is filled with drugs and violence; many kids lack a stable, safe home. Sometimes I see on their faces a sullen, vacant helplessness as they trudge up the stairs, and that is a feeling that no child should ever have to endure. I’ll never forget in my first month of teaching when I saw one of my students (let’s call him “S”) uncharacteristically sitting quietly at his table while students were getting unpacked. When I asked him what was wrong, “S” told me that his father had been arrested that morning — handcuffed and thrown in the back of a squad car without any explanation, before he could even said “I love you” or “have a good day.”
I was initially stunned: how could “S” have possibly come to school after witnessing something that traumatic? But then I realized that our school brought him positivity and stability: the routine, the engagement, and most importantly the 26 caring faces in the room. At that moment our mere presence was exactly what he needed. Being there was enough.
Don’t get me wrong: I fully support the use of smart, strategic, modern instruction. But as teachers we shouldn’t forget that a genuine, warm smile can be just as important as a lesson plan. Teachers are taught to differentiate to meet student needs; sometimes what a student really needs is a cheerful “good morning!” and a quick conversation about the weekend. Though schools should indeed be places of academic growth, we can’t forget they must also be places where kids feel, happy, safe, and comfortable.
That’s why I give those high-fives every morning (and thus buy hand sanitizer in bulk). Whenever a student smiles and slaps my hand with gusto, I know that I’m helping to make the school a great place to be. I urge other teachers — even if stressed, overwhelmed, or frustrated — to take some time each day and smile, fist-bump, dance around, and otherwise show your kids you care. It means more to them than you know. Making copies, calculating grades and other busy work can wait.