Opinion
Student Well-Being Opinion

Teaching Means Witnessing Small Acts of Humanity All the Time

February 19, 2018 2 min read

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
Future of Work Webinar
Digital Literacy Strategies to Promote Equity
Our new world has only increased our students’ dependence on technology. This makes digital literacy no longer a “nice to have” but a “need to have.” How do we ensure that every student can navigate
Content provided by Learning.com
Mathematics Online Summit Teaching Math in a Pandemic
Attend this online summit to ask questions about how COVID-19 has affected achievement, instruction, assessment, and engagement in math.
School & District Management Webinar Examining the Evidence: Catching Kids Up at a Distance
As districts, schools, and families navigate a new normal following the abrupt end of in-person schooling this spring, students’ learning opportunities vary enormously across the nation. Access to devices and broadband internet and a secure

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Speech Therapists
Lancaster, PA, US
Lancaster Lebanon IU 13
Elementary Teacher
Madison, Wisconsin
One City Schools

Read Next

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 Well-Being Whitepaper
Building a Trauma-Informed Learning Environment
Download this white paper to learn how to recognize trauma and gain strategies for helping students cope and engage in learning.
Content provided by n2y
Student Well-Being What Student Age Groups Are Most Vulnerable to Pandemic-Related Trauma?
New research finds that young adolescents are the most vulnerable to long-term problems from trauma. Here's how schools can help.
4 min read
Lonely middle school boy sits on windowsill at looking out the window.
SDI Productions/E+/Getty
Student Well-Being Opinion How to Help Students Know When It’s Time to Quit—and When It’s Not
Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right. Here’s how to consider the decision to persist or stop.
3 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Getty
Student Well-Being Caring for Students in the Wake of a Traumatic News Event
How educators can help students unpack emotions in the wake of troubling news events in a way that clears space for learning.
5 min read
Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier on Jan. 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol.
Pro-Trump rioters try to break through a police barrier at the U.S. Capitol.
John Minchillo/AP