I was walking down the hallway of one of my schools the other day and passed three students who all smiled from ear to ear and waved when they saw me. There is nothing like being the principal of an elementary school; there is so much positive energy and thirst for knowledge. As I was walking by these students I couldn't help but think of the conversation I had with one of our staff members just a few hours prior. We were talking about relationships, student backgrounds, and the fact that everyone in the school setting has a story.
Some of our students have everything they could hope for at home: loving parents, a nice house, lots of toys, food on the table, and a warm bed to sleep in each night. There are others who come to school and the best two (and sometimes only) meals of the day are served in the Epworth and Farley Elementary School cafeterias. Some students wear the same clothing multiple times per week, don't have a consistent place that they can call home each night, and the best seven hours of their days are with us at school. Of the 470 children I serve, there are no two that are identical, as everyone has individual needs, some more intense than others. I have been thinking about this a lot lately when I have been asked to assist teachers with students who are demonstrating behavioral challenges, refusing to work, and openly disrupting the learning environment for others. What are these children experiencing in their time outside of 8:00-3:30 each day? When dealing with difficult situations that involve students, I have made an intentional effort (and have encouraged teachers) to take a step back and ask, "What's the story of this student?" This question has allowed me to slow down, think, and envision myself in the shoes of students and their families.
It is the time of year when teaching vacancies are starting to be announced for the following school year, and a time when I often get contacted for advice by candidates seeking a teaching position. I'm happy to talk with potential candidates about what to expect when they are going through the process and so forth. A common question I have had lately in discussions about this is, "What is the most important skill that we can teach kids?" This is a heavy question that I have given a great deal of thought in the past several weeks, and if I have to say one skill, it is empathy.
I have a five year-old son who is experiencing his first year of school. He is excited about anything and everything related to his teachers and preschool; he simply can't get enough. We had his parent teacher conference last week where we were given work samples and a great deal of data showing progress toward learning targets and preschool standards. My wife and I are educators, so we definitely have an interest in the data and the improvements that our son is making; however, this is completely secondary to what his teacher shared with us as the conference proceeded. Our night was made when we were told how empathetic and caring Mason is to the friends in his class.
The ability to walk in the shoes of someone else is a skill that is not only critical for students, but equally important for adults. Everyone has a story, and many times it is beneath the surface and we know nothing about it. I encourage everyone to take a step back when faced with a challenging situation involving children or adults. Some questions that I think about in situations like the ones I have described include: has the child eaten today, is her spouse ok, are his parents still fighting at home, does she have a place to call home, is he still grieving the loss of a loved one?
The academic content we teach in classrooms is incredibly important, but not nearly as crucial as the ability to teach our students to view situations from the perspective of another. Everyone has a story, and it is our responsibility as educators to keep our eyes and ears open in an effort to best serve our children.