The Wise Teacher

A colleague of mine recently told me a story that reminded me of how powerful and positive an influence teachers can have—not just on their students,  but on students’ families as well. She said I could share it with you.

My friend and her four-year-old daughter have birthdays just a few days apart. The daughter’s birthday comes first, and the family had celebrated with a party, piñata, ice cream cake, and presents. However, on the morning of her mother’s birthday, the little girl burst into tears, complaining, “It’s not fair that Momma has a birthday, and I do not!”  She wanted to celebrate her birthday again!! My friend tried to explain that she had already had her turn, and now it was Momma’s, but to no avail.

Upset and distraught, my friend left for work. She didn’t care so much about her birthday, but she was worried about what the incident said about her child’s character. As she later explained to me, her daughter “seemed, in that moment at least, to be a spoiled brat who was being intentionally unkind. I wondered how I had raised such a selfish child!”

Enter a thoughtful and wise teacher. When my friend’s husband dropped their daughter off at preschool, he described the morning’s events to the teacher. He didn’t really expect her to do anything—he was just letting her know it had been a rough morning. But the teacher said, “Well, we’ll see what we can do about that.” And apparently she did quite a bit.

When my friend picked her daughter up at the end of the day, the girl rushed to give her some things she had made. She proudly held out a handmade birthday card and a string of multi-colored, plastic beads. On the string she’d affixed a small piece of masking tape with the word “Mom” scrawled on it in black, capital letters. As she accepted these gifts from her smiling daughter, my friend felt joy and relief.

I’m not sure how much time the teacher took from her day to help this child revamp her thinking about birthdays. I doubt it took her long. But her efforts made such a difference for my friend, her daughter, and their relationship.

Here are a few things I noticed about what the teacher did:

  • She saw the situation as a reflection of something the child needed to learn, rather than as a character flaw.
  • She refrained from judging the parents, understanding that even the best parents need help teaching their children sometimes.
  • She had the child focus on taking positive action, rather than on feeling guilt over the past. She could have focused on getting the child to see what she had done wrong. (For instance, she could have had her make an apology note.) Instead, the wise teacher helped the child find ways to make her mother’s birthday special, just as the mother had done for the child’s birthday.
  • This teacher saw her job as something bigger than just accomplishing her “school goals” for the day. She clearly understands that we teach children, not curricula.

You, like this teacher, have the power to make the lives of your students and their families better in ways both large and small. Thank you for all that you do!

Margaret Berry Wilson is the author of several books, including: The Language of Learning, Doing Science in Morning Meeting (co-authored with Lara Webb), Interactive Modeling, and Teasing, Tattling, Defiance & More.

Tags: Working with Families