A friend who teaches high school economics drags his chair into the hallway before each class begins. That's his favorite spot to greet students and catch up on what's happening in their lives outside of school. This small, deliberate gesture tells students that he's genuinely interested in them. He gives them the gift of his attention.
During the holidays, we tend to focus on gifts that come in shiny packages. As we gear up for another new year, it's worth reflecting on the many gifts that teachers share on a daily basis. Here are a few such treasures that I found tucked away in blog posts from the past year.
Gift of Joy
Global Teacher Prize Winner Nancie Atwell, founder of the Center for Teaching and Learning in rural Maine, wants every child to experience the sheer joy of learning.
"Americans seem to think, if kids are enjoying what they're doing, then something must be wrong. And then sometimes schools will try to bring joy or fun into a school by giving out bicycles to kids who read the most books. Or maybe the principal will dye her hair green if everybody reads 10 biographies. That's extrinsic. Kids are intrinsically motivated if they love the books they're reading, if they love the topics they're researching, if they love the poetry and essays they're writing because the subjects intrigue them."
Gift of Optimism
Scott McComb, last year's National Teacher of the Year, is an advocate for positive psychology, which he says "opens up the brain for learning and makes students more creative, more productive." He looks for opportunities to build optimism, especially for students who are experiencing struggles at school or at home. For example, he might jot down a quick compliment to hand a student on a sticky note at the end of class. Here's another idea he has borrowed from coaches who understand the power of positivity.
"I'm a sports fan and have read about a study that shows a correlation between the frequency of high-fives and fist bumps and winning team records. It may not be causal, but the teams that celebrate with those physical gestures tend to win more. So I've started deliberately doing that more with my kids. It's hard not to be happy when you're giving or receiving a high-five."
Gift of Empowerment
Teachers who create opportunities for students to apply what they are learning give the gift of empowerment. When their students discover their capacity to take action, they develop a sense of agency.
Third-grade teachers Lorie Loughborough and Linda Spinney offer a good example. During a lesson on state symbols, their students raised an interesting question: Why doesn't Rhode Island have an official state insect? After all, 46 other states do.
Instead of shrugging off that question and continuing with their lesson plans, these teachers guided students on in-depth inquiry that led to a lobbying campaign. Eventually, the elementary students convinced their state legislature to pass a bill designating the endangered American burying beetle as the state insect. As a result, students know all about their state insect and its habitat, and also what it means to be an engaged citizen who can make change happen.
For middle-school students from Brooklyn, New York, a design challenge gave them a similar sense of empowerment. Students collaborated with professional designers to generate ideas for back-to-school products made for students, by students. Principal Ailene Altman Mitchell said it was important that the experience generated real products, manufactured by a real company. "This took my students all the way to the finish line," she said. The partnership with outside experts sent her students a powerful message: "Your ideas have impact."
Gift of Hope
Hope for the future may be the most profound gift that we can offer students. During a year when news headlines have been anything but hopeful, teachers have found countless ways to fuel their students' hopes and dreams.
A favorite example comes from longtime educator Bernajean Porter. She has created a multimedia project called I-imagine: Taking MY Place in the World, which aims to "awaken the dreamer" in every student.
"We ask students to tell the story of how they will shine their light for good. Telling that story assumes you know what's special about you and what your gifts are. What gives you joy and energy? What fires up the engines?"
Long after the holiday lights fade, these gifts will continue to lift the spirits of students lucky enough to receive them.
Wishing you all a new year filled with joy, optimism, and hope.