A Culture of Care

While wrapping up the school year, this teacher learned two powerful lessons from her students.

As the school year begins to wrap up, I do what most teachers do: think about what worked, what didn’t, what I should do again and what I should do differently. The end of the year is an optimal time for reflection. 

The end of the year also tends to be a time to celebrate and slow down. Like many teachers, I conclude the year with student presentations. In my particular class, a fast-paced advanced placement course with the exam finally behind us, these remaining weeks are an all too rare moment to encourage students to explore issues they care about and share them with their peers. It is also a time when students control the room. Absent of a few announcements at the start or end of the period, I say nearly nothing and the kids run the show. 

It was in this student-centered context that my teaching goals for next year were illuminated. I learned important lessons from two students in particular, and neither lesson was academic in nature. 

In one instance, a student shared with the rest of the class his personal experiences with being undocumented. As this student shared, the room was silent. I scanned the class and looked for reactions, but the dimmed lights made it hard to read facial expressions. Did the class realize how courageous he was? Did they realize how much he trusted them? I couldn’t tell. We clapped at the end. I spoke briefly. But I still couldn’t read the reactions of the room.

Later on, this student and I spoke. I said, “I wasn’t sure how you felt about the class’s response. Do you feel OK?” The student replied, “No, they got it. They didn’t ask questions, but they wrote it down. They wrote a lot to me.” Though the class didn’t say much in reply, they used the feedback slips I recommend to express their support directly to their classmate. Through our conversation, it became clear that this student, in being allowed to speak his story, felt cared for by his peers.

The second occasion happened two days earlier. A student brought in sugar cookies to use as part of a demonstration. She walked through the whole routine, using student volunteers to help her. At the end of the class, she announced her surprise: “Cookies for everyone! And for those of you who might be fasting [it’s Ramadan—observing kids fast from dawn until dusk for about one month], I have to-go bags for you. Take a cookie and eat it after you break your fast.” The entire class was on their feet in seconds, either stuffing a cookie into their mouths or into bags. I sat at the back of the room, in my rightful place, watching my students laugh and enjoy each other.

What do these two stories have in common? Each one demonstrates something incredibly simple: basic kindness. In the first, a student bravely shared his truth and was met with compassion. In the second, a simple gesture of bringing in plastic bags made a situation that could have led to exclusivity into one that was inclusive. Another factor these instances share? Students made these decisions without the direction of an adult. As teachers, it can be hard to let go and let young people take control. But, when given that license, how often do they actually fail us or each other?

Because of these two students, all of my thoughts about next year—those that had revolved around redesigning rubrics, finding new primary sources, teaching new skills—suddenly seemed a bit small. The truly meaningful interactions in the classroom often happen on the margins, on days like these. Days that sometimes we, as teachers, even might complain about or consider wasted days.

I have new goals for next year: to try to move the margins into the center. To give students more of an open platform to be kind, brave and in control. What that looks like exactly is still unclear. It will hopefully take shape in the glorious summer days to come. But my purpose is less cloudy, and no other goals seem to matter nearly as much.

Schoeller is a high school history teacher in Brooklyn, New York.