Secret Handshakes

Summer is over and the school year has begun. For me it is a time to buckle down and get several things done at once, every day until the summer. I work at various schools, I teach cello and I teach at a private learning centre for kids who just need a little extra help. I am a student. Some would say I bite off a lot and I do choke a few times but eventually it does get swallowed. At one point, I did coach too on top of all this (but that is a story for a different day). It has been a great joy returning to the school that makes my heart so happy for so many reasons but I also decided to take a leap of faith and plunge into another school too. The position I have is funny because it is completely not suitable for my personality. Ever since I was little I needed a stable, constant environment that I could warm up to and learn routines and be a part of. I am a sub so I go everywhere. Did this give me anxiety? Yes. I can’t tell you the number of times my heart pounds before I walk into a new school. It is even more anxiety-inducing when the school is bigger than the schools I ever went to or the kids are bigger than me. Somehow though I have managed to do it enough to find what I like and don’t like. Getting to witness so many different teaching styles is amazing because like all positions in life, you realize there are people who are exceptional at their role and people who are really bad at it. The more you see the more you know and the more you know the more you can pick out the ones who are just people who teach…not teachers. Being a teacher’s assistant makes you a fly on the wall and receptive to everything. In a classroom that utilizes the help you’re a fly in the classroom and build relationships with the teachers and students. In a classroom that doesn’t, you’re a fly in the corner. Some days I am ecstatic because I’ve fallen in love with elementary and then other days I am reminded that my somewhat sarcastic self belongs in older grades. Regardless, the best education is experience and I am learning more about myself and the teaching world every single day.

What I have learned about working with kids (and am still learning):

  1. The kids who need the most love will show it in the most unloving ways. (I think I found this on Pinterest somewhere when I was having a particular rough day)

Having a cactus personality works well with these kids because you don’t want to like them anymore than they want to like you. I have been spat on, defied, kicked, growled at, cussed at and stared down by 5-year olds. The hardest part was understanding that it is not a personal reflection but a reaction. Sometimes you will break through their wall, sometimes you won’t. However you cannot give up on them, not for a minute, because the keys to their true person might be uncovered in even the smallest moments of the day, in places you least expect. It took me half a year to realize that about some kids and I’ve loved their hearts ever since.

2. Make their day.

I wrote this on our staff expectations daily chore list in the summer because I realized the importance of being someone’s someone. I learned this key from working in the private learning centre. Sometimes it’s about making them feel like something about them is unique and distinct from other kids when it comes to connecting with you. In the Grade 3 class I am in, remembering 25 different handshakes is extremely challenging, especially when you have to remember which ones utilize an Australian accent (Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oy, Oy, Oy, snap, snap, clap, dab). It is as simple as saying, “I missed your smile so much” to 25 different handshakes in the doorway.

3. Be silly, be okay with looking ridiculous.

We went and celebrated a Nationals win at the canoe club the other weekend and the end of the night was a giant dance party by the bonfire. I left. I’m sorry but there are two things: a) I don’t dance b) I don’t want to watch my athletes dance, I feel so weird about it.

The secret third: c) When a kid asks you to dance…you do it.

Too often I have seen rigged teachers. You can’t sing, you can’t hum, you can’t move, but you can do the prescribed hand actions that have been directed to you. Nothing else. Isn’t that fun?  I’m not saying there needs to be flexible seating coming out of everyone’s yoo-hoos or big group cheers and dances…but kids have to make it through 12+ years of mandatory education, why not make it different and exciting? To get a kid to eat lunch I turn into a yum-mometer and make beeping noises over top of their various food items to figure out which is the most tasty and lunch-worthy.

4. Sometimes being traditional is good.

I am currently working in an amazing Grade 3 class. The teacher is absolutely a gem. She is older and does teach in a more formal way. However she is so kind and so gentle. They don’t sit in a million different places. They don’t learn something in a million different ways. They don’t have tinker boxes or maker spaces but they do have an environment that is calm and expectational.  The other day she used a record-player to play a read-aloud and taught the kids about antiques which they were so enthralled by. I don’t believe it is because she doesn’t want these new things for them, it is just that the space simply doesn’t support this. Now, being someone who had maker spaces and tinker labs all summer I know how great they can be but I also know that those were cultivated in moderation. We started with one and added them as kids became more and more responsible and the interest built. We could do that because we had the equivalent of three classrooms. There is a place for school and there is a place for summer camp. Knowing how to sit in a chair is an important skill, knowing how to push in your chair every time you leave is simply a good habit. It takes 20 minutes to do agendas because we want to make sure everyone is writing exactly what is to be written properly and no one is left behind. On Day 1, I started writing the agenda for a child to trace  because he had trouble forming letters and by Day 6 he came to me and said, “Look! I wrote almost the whole thing by myself except for the last sentence you did…maybe tomorrow I will be able to write the whole thing!” When was the last time you heard a kid take pride in writing their agenda? This teacher reminds me of Miss Honey from Matilda. She always has time to praise a child and listen to their stories. She has time for them. It’s not about the material things but about what fills your day.

5. I’ve religiously followed this advice from a Disneyland princess my whole life but it means more now than it ever did before: When you’re hugging a child, you can be the last one to let go because you never know how much they need it.

As a cactus human being, cuddles come few and far between but hugs are important to me. I think I watched a YouTube video on a former Disneyland princess talking about their audition processes and stuff and she said that piece of advice on hugs and it just stuck with me. I’ve used it ever since. Walking into the happy school on Friday I could feel the advice sticking on my forehead. There were a lot of hugs from kids I hadn’t seen in three weeks and each one was so special and long. There is a feeling of magic when you go from asking a child if he/she would like a hug so they feel better to them just doing it when they see you. A hug is trust, for a moment in time it is safe. Sometimes people get all antsy when kids hug and cling or hang or climb so you’re holding them, but I think that’s what makes each reunion so cool. They’re all different. Some kids want to hug you from their level because it’s important that they see you from their line of vision. Some kids want to hug you and hang, just to make sure you won’t let go of them. Some kids want to hug you and climb up so you’re holding them so they can get what feels like two hugs at once. Some kids want to hug you, climb up and just stay there and ponder life for a few minutes…because they need it. In a world that will, by nature, teach them the harsh realities and injustice, I don’t believe there is any reason why you would ever deny a person a feeling of safety in a moment of reunion, happiness, sadness or excitement. Disneyland princesses make kids believe in magic, fairytales and reach out to children in split seconds in real life, so clearly she knew what she was talking about.

There is absolutely no mathematical formula for what makes each kid-day a raving success. However there has been a consistency with any exceptional classroom I’ve been in…teachers don’t talk at students, they talk TO them. They are people first, students second. They have a relationship built on a foundation of trust, empathy and connection. No matter who the student is, where they come from or where they’re at, their future is valid. Their future is valued.

Here’s to the educators of everywhere, not just schools, who defy the norm and strive for building good people. Here’s to the children who are untamed, spirit-filled, feisty and fighters…may someone teach you to turn all of that into a power that will change our world.

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