My mom is a play therapist and a miracle worker. Her secret power sounds simple: She absolutely accepts children as they are. Not as their teachers, classmates, or parents wish they would be. As they actually are—in all their turbulent, disruptive, exasperating glory.
The children she works with throw rocks, scream in class, and bite the other kids. When they throw rocks at her, she says, “You are really strong to be able to throw those rocks so far!” When they scream as loud as they can, she says, “That’s amazing that you can get out all your anger like that. I wish I could do that!”
Her acceptance works a kind of magic in these difficult children. A sense of calm settles over their tense little bodies and troubled spirits. They stop screaming, biting, and throwing rocks. The constant, exhausting struggle they wage against the world can cease.
Because they realize two truths: They are good and they are loved. Loved for who they actually are—for their kindness, strength, and fierce creativity. The seed for who they could become was there all along. Now it begins to sprout.
Honoring Our Students’ Present and Future Selves
The heart of our job as teachers is to know and honor children’s full selves. To clearly see their gifts, quirks, and needs. But it is also our job to see their future selves. Not just who they are, but who they could become.
My friend Geffrey Davis is a poet and professor who overcame daunting obstacles to become who he is today. He talks about the many nudges and connections throughout his life that helped him forge a path through treacherous terrain.
One of those nudges came while reading a recommendation letter his high school English teacher wrote for him. He didn’t recognize the student described so glowingly in the letter, but he knew he wanted to become that student his teacher had glimpsed.
Poet and author Sandra Cisneros writes in “Eleven” that we contain every earlier version of ourselves inside our present self.
“What they never tell you is that when you’re 11, you’re also 10, and 9, and 8, and 7, and 6, and 5, and 4, and 3, and 2, and 1. ... Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one.”
Teachers need to reverse-engineer the crafting of those Russian nesting dolls. We need to see a child’s many potential future selves, then reveal those future selves to her.
Here’s what that looks like this year with my 1st graders.
Adriana, when asked to do a diagram to go with her writing, shakes her head mournfully and says, “I can’t do that. My mom says I can’t do that.” I remind her of all the times this year she has said those exact words about a new skill, then gone on to do it brilliantly. I ask her to read the little poster on our wall of words to say when the work is new or difficult: “This is hard, but I can do it.”
‘Ernie’ is one of those kids we used to call “non-readers.” The boy can look at a sentence that says, “The moth flew home” and say instead “The brown butterfly went back to its little house in the purple tree,” without letting the actual words on the page interrupt his flow. With our school district’s new approach to reading, we build on kids’ strengths by focusing on all they can do instead of everything they can’t. Each time I read with Ernie, I find something to praise: “I like how you put your finger on each word while you were reading,” or “I love how you’re paying such close attention to the pictures to help you figure out the story.”
As a result, Ernie has not only learned to read, but loves to read. At his parent-teacher conference last month, he proudly read a book on dolphins to his mom, and he nailed every word. The book has been in his desk since the first week of school, and he reads it every day. His mom was genuinely amazed, and he beamed like a jack-o’-lantern.
Teaching the Students We Have, Not the Ones We Wish We Had
All day, in my own classroom and rooms along the hall, I hear the constant complaint of annoyed teachers. While the words vary—"Felipe, stop squeaking your shoes on the floor!,” “Lupita, why are you out of your seat?,” “Be quiet, Brian!"—we’re all saying the same thing to the little humans in our care: Why can’t you be the way I want you to be, instead of the way you are?
We spend so much of each school year wishing our students were different. We wish they were quieter, less rowdy, better at listening, better at following directions, better at reading, writing, and doing math. The frustration is palpable.
Our kids feel that frustration. They’re listening—not just to our words, but to our body language, our facial expressions, our tone of voice. Over time, they hear the message. Something is wrong with them. We don’t like them the way they are.
We have to find a way to take a breath. To convey to the children we teach that we see their whole selves clearly: their gifts interwoven with their flaws, their small triumphs as well as their many stumbles.
I have learned to share my own struggles, past and present, with my students. How hard math was for me when I was a kid. How shy I used to be, my shoulders hunched like a turtle in my kindergarten class photo. How disorganized I still am, always misplacing the day’s Read Aloud or my lesson plans. Each time I make a mistake, I point it out rather than hiding it.
I want my 1st graders to know that we’re all works in progress. I want them to see that I’m not who I want to be yet, but I keep trying to get there. Along that path, there will be times when I stumble. They will stumble, too. But we’ll help each other get up, and we’ll keep walking. Adelante, siempre adelante. Onward, ever onward.
The children we teach need to know and feel that we care about them unconditionally. We often withhold praise and affection, along with recess or other fundamental rights, from students who are behaving badly. But those are the exact moments—when a child is feeling angry, unloved, or restless in her own skin—that children most need our reassurance and compassion.
Our students need for us to see their goodness. The hard kids need it most. If we can learn to accept them as they are, they will begin to change. They often change us, too, along the way.
Photo taken by the author in his 1st grade classroom.