Our district recently lost the life of one of its high school students. No matter the cause or reason for a life cut short, the loss of a child is impossible to understand. "Why?" is the question that gets turned over and over in your head without an answer.
A student's death ultimately stops an educator in their tracks. It forces many to begin to question the reason we work with kids at all. Sometimes we are forced to unearth what is really important in a student's life -- beyond preparing them for the next grade or for a life beyond graduation or for a life as a twenty-first century citizen. What about the life that they are living now? Today. Now. The present moment.
Although I didn't know this student who recently passed in our district, his untimely departure made me recall a day eleven years ago when I got the phone call that a former student of mine had been killed in a car accident (I'll call him John). John was in fourth grade...ten years old...when he was taken from this Earth. I was his first grade teacher three years prior. Hearing that he was no longer with us made me recall his year with me.
John was a lively boy with unlimited energy and curiosity and a bright smile who couldn't grasp reading no matter the approach. Being a new teacher, I thought I could solve this through hard work. I was going to stay "on him" and not let him slip through the cracks. I would work with him in the early morning when he came to school early. He just wanted to unwind with his friends through free play on the rug, but I would call him up to my table to do some extra reading or writing or word play. I would read with him at snack time instead of allowing him to sit and chat socially with his peers. I would send home extra work and then do it with him in school if he didn't finish it at home. I think that I had good intentions as an overzealous new teacher, but they were very misguided. I really thought that by working him hard now, he would be better prepared for the "future." Little did I know that his "future" would end before mine and that he would be the best teacher that I ever had.
I cried at his funeral for many reasons -- his family's pain, his young best friend's loss and...my failure. I had failed at providing him a happy place to learn and thrive. I was so focused on his "success" that I actually contributed to his failure of a happy first grade year. Nor he nor his family ever intimated that I had made him unhappy in his first official year of school, but I know better. And my teaching has not been the same since. This little boy's departure literally changed the way that I would teach from that day forward. I am not the same teacher or the same person.
Now of utmost importance to me is the happiness of my students. I make a conscious effort to create a space in which kids can be happy learners and not just learners. No longer will I skip singing that song that they love because I have too much too "cover." No longer will I not take the time to ask them what's really wrong when they show frustration (I have found that it is rarely an academic reason). No longer will I start a day without gathering them together as a community to set a tone of happiness. They are children first and students second.
Ultimately, I have learned firsthand that children learn even more when they are happy and have reduced stress. Sounds logical, right? Scientific studies prove what I have been witnessing for the past ten years or so and I am so happy that there is evidence to prove what I feel to be true -- that happy children not only learn better, but they live better. I believe that a happy child is more likely to find and pursue his/her passion with unyielding persistence -- persistence that is motivated from something within them and not from an external factor, such as grades, honors, rewards or praise.
I'm not saying that I no longer need to instruct well. I am saying that the best instruction in the world falls upon deaf ears if a child is unhappy. We need to prepare a child's mindset (the soil) before we can even think of planting the seed of learning. Some come with the soil already tilled. Others need our help. Are teachers now supposed to be responsible for a child's happiness? I say yes -- whenever and wherever it is possible.