Opinion
Student Well-Being Opinion

Teaching Means Witnessing Small Acts of Humanity All the Time

February 19, 2018 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

By Sydney Chaffee

Last spring, I stood backstage in an historic theater, peeking out from behind a thick velvet curtain at the audience filling up. My students paced around in the wings in various states of costume. They had been preparing for this moment for months.

Every year all of my 9th graders—including those with autism, English language learners, and even kids who begin the year with crippling stage fright—put on a play. Their performance marks the culmination of a yearlong partnership with Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company: nine months of deepening literacy skills through the arts.

As I dropped the curtain back into place, I could see that my kids backstage were completely melting down.

One of the stars of the show, who was set to narrate the opening scene, began stalking around with his fidget spinner, muttering to himself, “I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. I’m not going out there.”

Another boy, who fashioned himself as the toughest kid in the school, started yelling: “Why are you so scared? You’re just gonna quit? That’s stupid! If he’s quitting, I’m quitting!”

He plopped down into a chair and pulled his shirt over his face. A girl nearby burst into tears, the stage manager hurried past whispering into a headset, and somebody knocked over a bunch of props.

Just as I was about to do my teacher thing—step in, comfort everyone, and manage the situation—something beautiful happened. The crying girl found herself surrounded by a gaggle of her peers, who threw their arms around her and reassured her.

“It’s going to be okay.”

“You know your lines.”

“Let’s go practice again.”

Fidget Spinner’s friends shoved earbuds in his ears so he could listen to a song that would calm him down. And the tough guy? Two seniors who had been through this four years earlier pulled his shirt off his face to reveal streaks of tears running down his cheeks. “I’m really scared,” Fidget Spinner admitted to them. They rubbed his back and gave him a pep talk. One by one, other 9th graders came over, hugged him, and told him, “You’re going to do great... We need you,” while I stepped back, realizing that my students didn’t need me to fix anything for them.

At my school, we teach our students the value of five Habits of Scholarship: responsibility, effort, critique, collaboration and compassion. Those first three fit pretty neatly into the work of school. Do your work, do it to your best ability, take feedback—these are obvious skills our students need to build as scholars. But the last two—collaboration and compassion—aren’t always as easy to teach. Sometimes, 15-year-olds have a hard time understanding why working together and being nice matter to their schoolwork. But backstage, as everything threatened to collapse, I saw my students taking the risk to truly demonstrate compassionate collaboration. Not for a grade, not because anyone was watching, but because they are amazing human beings with a boundless capacity for love.

That is why I am in love with teaching. Working with young people means that I get to witness these small acts of brilliant humanity all the time. I get to continually be inspired and challenged and amazed. I get to watch as students transform themselves into people who will change the world.

And I can think of nothing I could spend my time doing that is more powerful or rewarding than that.

Sydney Chaffee is the 2017 National Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). She teaches ninth grade Humanities at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, Massachusetts.

The opinions expressed in Teacher-Leader Voices are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being In Their Own Words These Students Found Mental Health Support in After-School Programs. See How
3 students discuss how after-school programs benefit their well-being.
6 min read
Vector illustration of a woman sitting indian style with her arms spread wide and a rainbow above her head.
iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being Cellphone Headaches in Middle Schools: Why Policies Aren't Enough
Middle schoolers' developmental stage makes them uniquely vulnerable to the negative aspects of cellphones. Policies alone won't help.
6 min read
A student holds a cell phone during class at Bel Air High School in Bel Air, Md., on Jan. 25, 2024.
A student holds a cellphone during class at Bel Air High School in Bel Air, Md., on Jan. 25, 2024.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week
Student Well-Being Teachers Want Parents to Step Up to Curb Cellphone Misuse. Are They Ready?
A program from the National PTA aims to partner with schools to give parents resources on teaching their children healthy tech habits.
5 min read
Elementary students standing in line against a brick wall using cellphones and not interacting.
iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being Schools Feel Less Equipped to Meet Students' Mental Health Needs Than a Few Years Ago
Less than half of public schools report that they can effectively meet students’ mental health needs.
4 min read
Image of a student with their head down on their arms, at a desk.
Olga Beliaeva/iStock/Getty