Tuesday, September 4, 2012

First Day of School

It’s the first day of school. For just about the first time in 38 years, I’m not singing with the other teachers to greet the students and welcome them to another year. Feels weird, like missing the opening notes of a concert or the beginning of the movie. But when I told a friend I was going in for minor surgery, he replied that no surgery is minor. And he was right. I’m doing okay, but not ready to hug a couple of hundred exuberant kids.

And so whatever good wishes I have to send will be from the comfort and safety of my desk. What what I wish?

Well, my recipe for a good piece of music, a good class, a good day, a good life is simple—an enticing beginning, a connected middle, a satisfying end. So teachers throughout the land, I certainly hope you’ve taken time to think about how to make the first day attractive and enticing and welcoming and inviting for your students. Give them a warm smile, a handshake or hug and help them feel that you’re happy to see them. Be happy to see them! Even if part of you is remembering with longing those long summer days at the beach, now you’re going to feel useful again and needed and admired. Yes, sometimes too needed by those fingers poking you, sometimes admired beyond what you deserve by your adoring students, sometimes not admired enough  when one of the little darlings makes you feel like you’re interrupting their important conversation when you start to teach. But hey, you’re a teacher and if you don’t love every nook and cranny of your students, get out while you can.

They show up with the whole of their quirky, surprising, full of wonder selves and your job as a teacher is to do the work to make your classes worthy of them. Plan things so there’s room for discovery and mystery and magic. Help the kids see the connections and patterns that make life thrilling and meaningful and at least partly understandable. Share your own loves and passions, get the buzz going in the room, feel the excitement of busy little fingers and hands and inquisitive minds investigating what you’ve set before them. Watch for those a-ha! moments and note them with the children and share them with the parents. Remember that “behaviour is the language of children” and work to see beyond the outrage of the moment to what the child is really asking for—and then do what you can to give it to them. Nine times out of ten, it’s more love or more attention or more understanding about what they need to understand. And don’t confuse understanding with unconditional acceptance of all shortcomings. Be clear, be firm, be strict when needed, set the bar high and leave them alone enough to figure out how they’ll reach it on their own. But not so alone that the whole weight is on their fragile little shoulders.

And kids, you are the center of our universe, but don’t get too carried away with that notion. You have big work ahead of you and you need to make the effort. There’s a whole reading code to crack, the countless ways to arrange and re-arrange numbers, the task of singing what you hear and playing what you sing and dancing what you play. How to cut with scissors and paint with paints and clean the brushes and work with clay and weave strips of paper or cloth into coherence and the thousand ways you can play with a ball. And sure, you’re curious about burning a bug with a magnifying glass, but someday you have to realize that this bug is also the center of a universe and worthy of the gift of life. You have to learn that you and Julie might have fun laughing at Johnny, but might as well figure out sooner than later what it feels like to be in Johnny’s shoes or realize that Julie might just team up with Johnny and decide to pick on you. We know you are so smart and have things to share with us adults beyond your effortless young computer skills, but that doesn’t mean that you’re in charge or don’t need to listen to other ideas. You’re a kid, after all. Lots to learn and lots of scraped knees, hurt feelings, confusing ideas ahead (and here I’m talking the rest of your life!), but mostly, I hope you get to be a kid 100%— get to play and try things out and laugh and run and twirl and put on dress-up clothes and draw and make a thousand small mistakes and learn from them to avoid the big ones.

At the end of this first day of school, I hope you already learned something new, had fun with a friend, showed off something you can do well, that you had an enticing beginning to a year and made all sorts of connections during the day and felt some degree of satisfaction when 3:00 rolled around. And as I ritually say each year at the Teacher Gathering after the kids have left:

“1 down. 174 to go!”

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