As educators, we are often caught in a cycle of analyzing students from their past behaviors and test results, and then trying to determine what it is we need to do in the future to help them succeed. The same goes for administrators working with teachers. While this is a powerful and effective model, we can easily overlook a person’s present needs. When this happens, we lose the opportunity to help someone grow.
I vividly remember one of my past students, Josh. I met Josh in his senior year as a student in my AP Language and Composition class. He was intelligent, insightful, and dedicated to learning. One week, Josh was visibly irritable. He was unfocused, terse towards both his peers and me, and his performance was not consistent with that of the young man I had grown to admire over the preceding two months. When I asked him if everything was ok, he simply said he was fine, and I chalked it off as a teenage boy having a bad couple of days. The goal was about preparing my students for their AP test, and as the weeks progressed, it seemed to me that he had worked out whatever it was that was bothering him.
Towards the close of the semester, I asked my students to synthesize all that we had discussed and read, and answer one question: What is a well-lived meaningful life? Josh’s essay was beautifully written, with every word coming straight from his heart. I learned a lot about him reading that essay. I learned that he lost his mother to breast cancer in his freshman year. The woman that was his world and best friend. His father traveled constantly for work, leaving Josh with a nanny during the remainder of his freshman and sophomore years. And even though he admitted that he wanted for nothing, he would give up every creature comfort to have his mother back in his life. It was at that time I realized that his off week coincided with the anniversary of his mother’s passing.
His was the first student essay that brought me to tears.
I missed an opportunity to connect with Josh and help him through a difficult time, as I am sure I have done countless times with other students, both as a classroom teacher and assistant principal. If I were more present with my students back then, maybe I could have helped him process his loss in some way. Instead, I was focused on who I thought he was, and where I thought he needed to go. His score on a test didn’t matter, having someone to talk to and empathize with him did, and in that, I failed him.
When a student walks into our classrooms or offices, they are not the same person they were the last time we met, nor will they be those same people the next time we cross paths. We cannot control their yesterday or tomorrow. What we can do is support them the best way we can today, so that they can process their baggage from the past, better prepared for the challenges ahead.
This year, I am going to place my energy in the student or staff member in front of me. Focusing on what they need today is about providing them what they need in the moment so that they can move forward with confidence, hopefully looking back at yesterday with a smile.
I challenge you to find ways to focus on today, and stay in the moment with those you serve and those you love. And if you have time, I invite you to share your story.