It is easy to sense both the apprehension and excitement as the end of summer rolls around and it's time to head back to school. Adults and children alike share in this palpable enthusiasm because the start of a new school year represents new beginnings. This annual opportunity for beginning anew is unique to the enterprise of education. Most professionals push a "pause" button when their vacation approaches, and return to work and hit "resume." However, that is not the case in American schools and school systems. It's "stop" in early summer and "start" in the fall; a rather peculiar arrangement that harkens back to a bygone era while being oddly ripe with possibility. The clock is reset with the promise of new and renewed friendships, a new teacher (or perhaps several), new routines, unbroken crayons and full length pencils. For teachers, the challenge of a yet-to-be-discovered dynamic of a new class of students awaits, as a roster of names serves as the only evidence at their disposal that the magical interweaving of teaching and learning is about to begin again.
When the day finally arrives and the school buses disgorge the boundless energy and curiosity contained within them, teachers, administrators and support staff begin, in earnest, to organize the chaos that arrives at the school house door. Among the first challenges is matching each name on the class roster with a face. One by one, a name is called and a predictable response of "here" is heard, prompting the teacher to look up, and upon seeing the responding face, offer an enthusiastic "hello" or some other traditional greeting. This ritual is repeated until each child has been acknowledged and offered their physical place in the classroom. Once that is accomplished, we frequently segue to routines, protocols and expectations - the general ground rules of how this new assembly of minds and bodies will manage to function until it's time to push the "stop" button several months down the road.
In our rush to quiet the chaos, and to attain some order so that we might begin exploring content, we run the risk of overlooking something that is vitally important. The students assigned to us are not merely names attached to faces. Each of them comes with a story and a catalog of interests and things that excite them. They bring personal gifts and treasures that, if discovered, open the opportunity for a rich and meaningful relationship, one that will serve as the foundation in their construction of a relevant learning opportunity..
In my book, I encourage the habitual use of five "what" questions for both students and their teachers.
1) What am I curious about or want to know?
2) What if I devise a specific course of action to address my curiosity?
3) So, what might be the impact or outcome of my decided course of action?
4) Now, what should the next step be? What does this lead me to?
5) What connections can I make? How does this relate to anything else?
As teachers ponder their new class lists and begin the challenging task of attaching the correct name with each face, I encourage them to engage in a process of "what" thinking. What do I need to know about each of these students in order to serve each of them well? What if I devise some enjoyable, nonthreatening, strategies that might assist me in discovering their backgrounds and interests? So, what will I do with these insights? Now, what planning and instructional decisions can I make based on this information? What can I do to assist my students in constructing experiences that feel authentic, relevant and connected for them, based on who they are?
I have worked along side hundreds of teachers during my career. I know all too well that there are some who will dismiss my suggestion at hand, citing pressures of time and the need cover their content as suitable rationale for this omission. These are the same teachers who will complain about a lack of student engagement midway through the year. It is truly unfortunate that they would choose to overlook an opportunity to forge meaningful personal and instructional relationships with their students. Truthfully, their students are short changed by this decision.
However, I remain confident that the vast majority of teaching professionals will embrace this opportunity and realize the enormous benefits for this investment of energy. They recognize that while a greeting of "hello" is kind, they understand that "I see you" is powerful. The distinction between being acknowledged and being known is frequently life altering, and is definitely worthy of the effort.
Please . . . go beyond "hello."