My son has a habit of picking up rocks and seeds while he is playing outside, as many 3-year-olds tend to do. He is fascinated by nature and the world around him, and I am fortunate enough to send him to a school that provides him with a huge playground and lots of free time outside. Recently, my son has been coming home with pockets full of seeds. I find them in his shoes and in the laundry, in so many quantities that his little shorts are weighed down at the end of each day. He says they are a “special surprise” for me.
The other day, when I picked him up, he was so excited he could barely keep still. He was waiting for me and excitedly hurried down the hall shouting, “Mommy! Mommy! Look!” He led me into his classroom, and on his hook, along with his lunch box, was a small bag. He picked it up to show me and, as he pointed at his teacher, said, “Look, Mommy. She gave me a bag so that I can hold all my surprises.” His face was pure joy.
Now, as an elementary teacher of many years—and as a mom for just a few—I know how easy it would have been for his teacher to tell him not to pick things up off the ground or tell him to empty his pockets before coming inside. She could have directed him to throw them away. But instead, she chose to recognize his curiosity and encourage him by providing a tool that would further his learning.
The symbolism of her act was not lost on me. While some may see a simple bag, I see more. My son is a true introvert, and he doesn’t make himself easily known in a class setting. He has lived in four houses in his three years of life, and he’s been to as many daycares and preschools. He comes from a single-parent household and is multi-racial. He was only a few weeks into a new home and a new school. But his teacher saw him. She engaged him. She helped him. And in doing so, she won the heart of a student with whom she now shares an authentic relationship.
Our students bring so much to our classrooms each day. Their little lives are full of complex scenarios and thoughts. As they carry their curiosities and worries and shyness and boldness into the classroom, how do we respond? As educators, do we acknowledge their individual magic as well as their burdens? Do we look for authentic ways to build relationships?
What if we all did for our students what this incredible teacher did for my son?
What if, instead of telling our students to empty their pockets, we helped them carry the load?
Mascareñaz is the director of Equity Affairs for Wake County Public Schools and a former teaching and learning specialist for Teaching Tolerance.