Teacher Wellness

A Human-Centered Approach to Teaching Supports Student Growth

Rethinking homework and projects so that students can also focus on getting enough rest can transform the class environment.

May 28, 2024
Hero Images on Offset / Shutterstock

As a human who teaches, in what ways does my teaching promote the physical, emotional, and spiritual growth of my students?

Often in conversations with other humans who teach, we focus on academic growth, or academic success. Many might argue that nurturing the intellectual development of students is part and parcel of our work. I do not disagree. This essential question is not an effort to move us away from nurturing the academic growth of students. Rather, I am joining the chorus of educators who have long called for us to think about our students’ growth more holistically. That is, what do students need to be well? What do they need to be happy? And what is our role in working with them to build happy, healthy lives? Thus, this question encourages us to expand our thinking.

Book cover of Humans Who Teach by Shamari Reid
Courtesy of Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH

In centering love, this question asks us how we can reimagine our classroom as a place in which we can nurture the physical, emotional, and spiritual growth of students. Physical growth speaks to working with students toward efforts to take better care of their physical bodies. This may look like working with them to make sure they have access to nutritious food, for example. Or perhaps it is making space during the school day for students to stretch, breathe, and engage in appropriate exercise. And it is always an invitation for us to remember that our students are humans with bodies that need and deserve proper care. Our classrooms should not get in the way of students’ physical growth.

Once, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Eli. Eli was a curious boy finding his way in a busy public middle school. We spent forty-five minutes together every day in my Spanish 1 class. After the first month of the school year, I noticed that Eli would drag into class every day. Quietly he would find his seat, and his head would crash down into his desk. It was patently obvious that Eli was exhausted. I was puzzled by this.

So after about a week of head crashing, I approached him after class and asked:

“Yo, Eli, what’s up?”

“Nothing. I’m good,” he replied.

“You don’t seem good. Is everything OK?”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m fine.”

“OK, I will trust you... but you seem exhausted,” I said. At first, Eli did not respond nor look at me.

After fifteen seconds, Eli looked into my eyes and raised his voice to say: “It’s this damn class! It’s just too much. We got homework and quizzes. And the vocabulary just keeps coming. Man, I can’t get ahead. So I stay up most nights working on your stuff until super late cuz I respect you. So I’m tired... but at least I have a good grade in this class, right?”

“Nah, Eli. That’s not OK,” I said. “And I appreciate you for sharing this.”

Eli was right. I was doing too much. I had weekly quizzes. I assigned homework after every class. I gave way too much vocabulary at a pace that was too fast. And the students seemed to be keeping up. Their grades raised no alarms. Everyone seemed content. However, Eli helped me see that my class might have been getting in the way of some of my students’ physical growth and that grades were not only the indicator for students’ well-being.

At first, my pride clouded my judgment and I was happy. It felt good to be respected enough that students would stay up all night to prioritize work for my class. But then I reflected on what I wanted for them as humans. Yes, I wanted them to be academically prepared; however, I also needed them to be rested. I needed them to be well. So I restructured my unit plan. I minimized homework by increasing practice time in class. This allowed me to eliminate homework assignments that served as practice and assign only homework that had to be completed outside of class.

In addition, I thought more intentionally about the space between large projects for my class, took into account large projects due for other classes, and incorporated mini checkpoints for large assignments to help students approach big projects in bite sizes. I also spent a considerable amount of time walking through the unit plan with students, emphasizing which weeks might have more expectations than others and sharing how they might prepare.

These are just a few changes I made so that students would not feel the pressure to forgo precious sleep to work on items related to my class. Many of my colleagues were not excited about my changes in an effort to make sure students had more time to sleep (and play) outside of school hours. I had colleagues that argued I should have a conversation with students about time management. Others told me that the real world does not care about sleep. And there were others who considered me soft and mentioned that now students would dislike their class because they had no intentions of “lightening the workload.” I heard their comments. I then shared that I would continue doing what made sense to me and my heart.

For humans, sleep is essential. And the hours of sleep we need each night vary by person, but according to recent studies, most young people between ages six and twelve need at least nine hours of sleep each night, and young people between ages thirteen and eighteen need at least eight hours of sleep each night (CDC 2020). And not getting these necessary hours of sleep most certainly affects students’ physical well-being and growth. I took this conversation back to my students, Eli’s peers, and he was not the only one who was spending a lot of time on my class outside of school hours.

As a human who teaches, in what ways does my teaching promote the physical, emotional, and spiritual growth of my students?

Shamari reid

This example is just one way in which I worked at making sure my classroom did not get in the way of students’ physical growth or them meeting their physical needs. Other examples of promoting students’ physical growth are encouraging students to stretch when needed; making sure they know they can and should drink water when needed; building time in my lessons to play light music while students rest their eyes and bodies; and constantly reminding them that taking care of their bodies is important and necessary. In fact, for older students I include language in our course overview about how important their physical well-being is to me and must be to them.

Promoting students’ emotional growth shows up in the ways in which I use our class time as a space where we can take breaks, breathe, process our emotions, engage in reflective journaling, and increase our self-awareness. This kind of growth nurturing often results in me infusing my curriculum with a variety of activities that encourage students to explore and honor their emotions. And in ways that are appropriate, I work with them to think through healthy ways to respond to these emotions. In early grades, I have had emotion time during morning meetings, in which students have shared how they felt, and as a community we’ve brainstormed healthy ways to engage with these feelings.

I do not pretend to be a therapist or licensed counselor. I am not advocating for educators to invite students to unearth trauma in class and then leave them alone to deal with it. Simply, this essential question is about making sure my classroom is a space where students can feel. I am intentional about normalizing our feelings as humans. I share with students that it is OK to cry, laugh, smile, be angry or disappointed, and experience a range of other human emotions. And it is healthy to understand how we can attend to those emotions in class, and what to do with the ones we cannot, and how to get additional help. Furthermore, my students have become very used to engaging with a range of materials on emotional well-being, reflection, and mindfulness. 

Humans Who Teach by Shamari Reid. Copyright © 2024 by Shamari Reid. Published by Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH. Reprinted by permission of the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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