What Could Be

As teachers of young children, we do not always get to see our hopes for our students fulfilled. We have to trust that we and their future teachers will make a difference, even if the rate of change is slow, and we don’t see much progress before he or she leaves our direct influence. This can be challenging: it’s easy to slip into believing that the kindergartner who rolls all over the carpet will never have self-control, that the defiance shown by a second grader predicts a troubled future or that a third grader’s frequent meltdowns forebode a life of sadness.

But we can’t do that.

Elementary educators stand perched between what is and what could be for the students we teach. We have to remember to keep looking forward to what could be for each of them.

Occasionally, a former student reappears later in life to show us that all the effort we and other teachers exerted on his or her behalf mattered—that we made a difference. Recently, I was lucky enough to have one of those experiences.

I just read a high school commencement address by one of my former students. His classmates chose him as their speaker. As he explained in his speech, this selection was not a foregone conclusion, at least not in his elementary school years.

In his speech he talked about one troubling incident from that time. In fourth grade, he had a dispute with a girl in his class about gender and football. As he recalls it, he started to walk away from the argument, and she, knowing he loved bugs, provoked him by squashing an ant. He responded by punching her in the face.

At the time, his teachers and the school dealt first with the immediate situation. Harming another child was a serious breach of our school rules. The boy was suspended and presented with the challenge of trying to make reparation for his mistake.

There’s nothing particularly remarkable about that part of the story. However, it’s in the midst of dealing with situations like this, and in their aftermath, that teachers must be especially vigilant about holding on to their vision of what could be for children. In this case, I remember this boy’s teachers recognizing that although he was struggling to figure out what was just and unjust, and sometimes making mistakes as he did so, he had incredible potential. We believed that with his passionate convictions, constant willingness to question, and amazing talent as a writer (on full display years later in his graduation speech!), he could become a thoughtful, caring, and talented citizen.

And so he has. Much of the credit for his success in life so far goes to him and his family, of course. But his teachers also played a role. Throughout his years of school, they chose the more difficult path. Rather than giving up on him, they kept believing.

I know so many of you do the same on behalf of your students. You keep holding onto the possibility of a different, brighter future even when they make mistakes, struggle, and challenge you. As this school year ends, I hope you will take a few minutes to think about the difference you are making by doing just that.

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: Challenging Behaviors, Misbehavior