Ryan (name changed) was one of my students several years ago. He was a good student, and generally quiet. He often sat with his legs stretched out beneath the desk and his chin resting in his hand. One day–he happened to be sitting in the front row, center seat–we both found ourselves laughing at a blooper no one else in the room had seemed to notice. I couldn’t regain my composure, and when I accidentally let out a snort, he laughed so hard that he couldn’t sit up straight.
Ryan was born abroad and was multilingual. He was adventurous and a musician. He volunteered at school and with his church. He had several siblings. The year I taught him, he was on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout.
I did not know any of these things about Ryan when I taught him To Kill a Mockingbird and Romeo and Juliet. I learned who Ryan was outside of my classroom three years later when I read his obituary. Ryan had taken his own life.
I am a good teacher. My students left our class as better and more confident readers, writers, and thinkers. I loved and respected my students, and I truly believe they felt respected and cared for as people. And yet, even after 180 days, I did not know the wonderful, fascinating Ryan at all. For that reason, he is one student I will never forget. If I return to teaching someday, he will be my motivation to be a teacher who loves, respects, and KNOWS the fascinating young people in my classroom.
By making the effort to know Ryan was a multilingual pianist, hiker, and Boy Scout would not have changed his life or the fact that it ended. He was a person who struggled with his mental health and who had a loving and extensive support system both in and out of school. But I have witnessed the ups and downs young people experience as a part of growing up. Those ups and downs become even more tumultuous when depression, anxiety, poverty and homelessness, instability at home, bullying, or a host of other factors are involved. Teachers cannot solve these problems. But I do believe having positive and dependable relationships with adults, teachers included, makes a difference in a child’s life.
If you are reading this, I presume you are the parent of a child who is or who will someday be in school. Your child will have a teacher who cares for and works hard on behalf of his or her students.
Here are some things you should know about that teacher:
- If he teaches elementary school, he has (on average) 24 students, whom he teaches every subject. He has a 20-minute lunch break and (most days) 30 minutes of planning while his students are in gym, art, or music class.
- If she teaches middle or high school, she has (on average) 100 students or more, has a 35-minute lunch and a 55-minute planning period each day.
- He or she is expected to cover an extensive amount of curriculum, meet the diverse needs of each student, communicate with parents, complete professional development credits, sponsor an extracurricular activity, and more.
- This teacher would also love to know that your child is passionate about bugs, is learning to bake, dreams of becoming a scientist, or goes hiking every weekend that he can.
School will begin again soon. This year, take a moment to introduce yourself and your child to the teacher who cares and works hard, but who may not have many opportunities to KNOW her students. Just a few friendly words go a long way. They not only set up a positive connection between your teacher and your child, but they also establish a positive relationship between your child’s teacher and you.
If my son were old enough to attend school this fall, this is the note I would send:
I’m Naveen’s mother. I wanted to introduce myself and share a few things about my son with you.
You might have noticed in the first few weeks of school that Naveen is quiet. He is actually a very social person, but he takes a little while to get comfortable. (He is also generally eager to please–if socializing becomes a distraction, it won’t take much to redirect him!)
He loves music–listening, singing, dancing, playing instruments, you name it. He is also very interested in books and movies that connect to real life.
Naveen is very focused when learning something new. If you show him how to do something, he’ll practice it that way, but he also likes to experiment. He likes to try things on his own–he’s pretty good at asking for help when he’s ready for it.
I think Naveen is going to enjoy your class this year. Thank you for taking the time to read this and learn a little more about him!
A few tips:
- Wait until a few weeks into the school year to send your note. By then your child’s teacher will know who your child is and you’ll know a bit more about the class.
- Keep your note short and positive.
- If you’d like to include a concern (perhaps your child struggled with homework last year), also include a few tips or strengths that might help address that concern.
- If your child is in middle or high school, it’s not necessary to send a note to every teacher. Choose a teacher or coach your child connects with, or the teacher of a challenging class.
- Keep realistic expectations for the response to your note. What you’re really doing is planting the seed for a positive connection between your child’s teacher, your child, and you.