Sit Down Next to a Child

The closing of a semester is a stressful time.

Exams are looming for both students and teachers, papers are stacking up behind, on, and under my desk, and I’m certain that my desire to crawl headfirst into a hole (with a book?) isn’t a positive indicator of mental stability.

It’s also usually the time of year (one time at least) that I look back and wonder:

Did I guide them toward appropriate challenge?
Did we study enough mentors to shine a light on the path of reading like a writer?
Did I book talk a variety of books wide enough to hook readers at all interest levels?
Are these students better scholars and citizens for walking into my room every other day for the past four and a half months?
Will they remember any of what we did, thought, explored together?

Did I do enough?
Was our classroom experience together ENOUGH for these kids? 

Often, I fear the answer is no.

With half the year gone, I sense a blur behind me and a haze in front of me, and here I sit wondering how I can do more without killing myself in the effort, because despite all the hopeful posts of great tips and tricks and successful tidbits to help kids become better readers, writers, thinkers, citizens…I don’t feel the warm satisfaction of someone who knows it’s been enough.

  • Several students are in danger of failing.
  • My struggle with manageable methods to hold students accountable for their work/thinking hangs over my planning, and reflection, and lack of free time.
  • There is a persist voice in the back of my brain that tells me there just aren’t enough days in the school year, hours in the day, or minutes in the history of the universe to meet the diverse needs of my students, the administrative demands of documenting student progress, or the expectations I have of myself to provide the timely feedback to students that will most benefit their authentic learning.

And then…

I sat down next to Leila.

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A quiet, but determined student, Leila and I have sometimes struggled during the year to let her insights shine. From anxiety to a difficult home situation, there have been tears after a graded discussion when Leila couldn’t bring herself to speak, writer’s conferences where the draft was so muddled with tangents that the heart of her message was lost, and plenty of weeks when reading goals were nowhere near met, because life and the chaos it could bring her got in the way.

But we’ve grown together. Slowly.

Leila is the type of student that packs up methodically after last period. Sometimes she has a question. Sometimes I can tell she just wants to softly say goodbye without the bustle of 27 other students in the room. Sometimes she’ll shyly ask if I’ve read her draft yet or how she did in discussion that day.

She wants to connect.

And often, we do – chatting for a few minutes before she needs to catch the bus.

But shame on me, there are times I feel rushed – hurrying to a meeting, wanting to sit down and get to a stack of papers, resisting the urge to pack up and run screaming from the building after a day of craziness (not often, but sometimes).

Yesterday, however, I got the end of semester reminder that I needed. Leila asked if she could talk to me about a personal problem. Family struggles were weighing heavily on her slight shoulders, and could I listen for a few minutes because she needed to “talk to an adult I really trust”?

I put down the stack of books I was distractedly organizing and looked Leila straight in the eye. She smiled weakly and I came out from behind my desk to sit right down next to her.

Her struggles are the struggles of countless students: split family, terrible treatment by a parent, a struggling single mother, a student who wants to succeed from a deep need to exist as something positive in a world that has shown her far too much negativity in her 16 short years.

And as I listened to Leila struggle through and very carefully chose my words to let her know I really heard and appreciated her, a buried spark was re-lit. The soft glow inside when you feel truly connected to another human in this vast expanse of brisk passings, hurried exchanges, and impersonal interactions.

It had been exactly six school days since I had had a meaningful sit down with a student. In the name of providing time to “do work,” I had not conferred with kids, talked up a book, or written a word with them. They were working. I was working. We were coexisting and it felt…cold.

A few weeks back, I had a big, fat, slam a door fight with my husband.

It had been a few days (weeks?) during which we had let the hectic schedule of daily life hollow out a growing gulf between us. From the depleted shells we can all become after a day at work, to the endurance needed to weather the willful meltdowns of our spirited daughter, to the dog who needs to be walked despite windchills below zero, to the painful universal truth illustrated by conversations centered around, “I don’t know, what do you want for dinner?”, we were operating in triage mode almost each and every minute.

As a result, we were successfully coexisting, forging ahead, making steady progress, and maintaining stasis. We were not, however, connecting or particularly enjoying the experience.It wasn’t until we sat down next to each other and took the time to engage in meaningful conversation, that we fully realized how empty the very “full” days had been.

Such is the way of it with our students. Not the dinner conversations and toddler meltdowns, obviously, but the need to reconnect…or work to sustain the connections we’ve forged before too much stress, distraction, work time, or any sort of “other” gets in the way and makes it awkward.

So as this first semester comes to an end, I am trying to avoid the nagging questions of whether or not I have been, done, or provided enough in class so far this year.

When you become the trusted adult to any child who needs you, you have not only done enough, you are enough. 

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Sending anyone and everyone that needs it, a virtual hug today. Whether you find yourself at the end of the semester, or jumping headfirst into the new term, your work is important and valued.

Each and every time you sit down next to a child, it’s an opportunity. How blessed we are to have it.

So take a seat. You deserve it and your kids need it.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her new semester will start with State of the Union conferences for each student to reflect on the semester passed, set goals for the upcoming term, and connect. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum. 

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2 thoughts on “Sit Down Next to a Child

  1. Ruth January 11, 2018 at 11:53 am Reply

    Brava!!!! As a retired teacher with 45 years of experience, please believe me. In the future, when least expected, a former student will contact you to let you know you were special. Teaching IS a gift that keeps on giving and unexpectedly the teacher keeps receiving too.

    Like

  2. Shana Karnes January 11, 2018 at 9:43 am Reply

    I feel you all too well on the cold coexistence that happens when we don’t get to talk with one another. Thanks for the reminder of the power of being someone others trust with their truths. ❤️😭

    Like

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