Professional Learning

Teachers: What’s Your Motto in the Classroom?

February 20, 2015

Teachers make thousands of decisions each day, say the experts, as well as those of us who have been in the classroom. Making decisions can feel exhausting and draining, or efficient and effortless. Decisions are easier if we have clear guiding principles or ideals as we are making them. When these don't exist or we haven't articulated them, our decision-making process can be haphazard.

A motto is a powerful way to encapsulate the principles, values, and ideals which guide us as teachers and from which we make decisions. So teachers, what's your motto in the classroom?

The Origins of My Teaching Motto

For some of us, our mottos may emerge from our own experiences in school -- that's certainly true in my case. I was born in London, England, to a Costa Rican man and a Jewish-American woman. We lived in a working-class suburb that, in the early 1970s, was rapidly changing due to immigration from the former British colonies.

When I started going to school, I immediately learned that no one spoke Spanish (my first language), and that to do so was to speak in a language that did not belong. I abruptly stopped speaking Spanish; I wanted to fit in. The school day began in an assembly where we sang Christian hymns and prayed (there is no separation of church and state in England). As this was not my family's faith, I received another message at school: "If you want to belong, bow your head and pray."

My mother protested and an exception was made that I did not have to close my eyes and pray, but as I looked at the bowed heads of the majority of my classmates who were also not Christian, I wondered what this meant about our belongingness. The message was clear, and I did not have to wonder too long: I did not belong. In fact, over and over, I heard white British children harassing immigrants with the taunts, "Go back where you belong!"

When I was ten, my mother, brother, and I moved back to the United States, to a Southern California beach town where my grandmother had retired. While this community was tranquil, it was also very wealthy and lacked any racial and socio-economic diversity (and at this point, my mother was struggling financially to make ends meet). From my first day of fifth grade, I was teased about my clothes (which came from the Salvation Army), my accent, and told, "Go back to Mexico," which really confused me. The message from my peers was clear: "You do not belong."

When I reflect back on these formative experiences, I see that I did not belong because of my language, my family's religious traditions, my mother's income level, or my browner skin and Hispanic name. It was the message, "You do not belong" -- a message both communicated by children and not interrupted by adults, and also communicated by official institutions -- that I was intent upon rupturing when I became a teacher. My motto in my classroom was, "You belong."

You Belong!

You belong. You belong here, no matter who you are, where you come from, what language you speak, or what traditions you follow, or where your clothes were purchased. There's nothing about you that isn't accepted in this classroom. This is the first rule in our classroom: You belong.

Having a motto means that your actions are guided by a principle. My motto wasn't something I necessarily said out loud all the time to my students but rather something that guided how I made decisions.

These decisions included:

  • How students were seated with each other in groups
  • How they selected or were matched with partners
  • How games were played during recess
  • How new students were integrated into our community
  • How I intentionally planned for developing our community of learners

Perhaps it would be obvious to state, but "put downs" of any sort were not acceptable in my class. In fact, any kind of put down or insult would result in taking whatever amount of time it took to resolve it.

I recall one afternoon when I taught third grade, two girls were in the midst of a conflict around who could be a part of which group. I remember sitting on the floor with them for hours and helping them resolve this conflict (I don't remember, I confess, what the rest of the class was doing). I remember feeling a little frustrated that I had to be doing this, but the frustration was trumped with a conviction that it was all about kids feeling that they had a place, a community, and that they were accepted.

While this was my aspiration, I'll also confess that I didn't always reach it. There were times when I exhausted my skill set for dealing with a particular child -- a child who had social and emotional needs so extensive and for which I didn't have the skills to address.

I feel sad as I think about that handful of children and guess that they didn't feel welcomed in my classroom, or didn't feel as if they belonged. Overall, I think the great majority of my former students would say that they felt they were a part of a community in my classroom, and that I didn't let kids feel left out, or without a buddy during a project, or standing alone during recess. And that feels good.

Articulating Your Own Motto

So what is your motto as a teacher? What drives you most deeply, most authentically? What do you aspire to create for your students and in your classroom? I encourage you to spend some time reflecting on these questions.

Ponder these questions with colleagues, write about them, and see if this leads you to a motto. It can help alleviate the decision-making processes every day, help you feel more grounded and powerful, and ultimately, it will probably help you better serve your students.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

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