After a decade of teaching students with severe behavior issues, I switched to teaching first grade. It soon became clear that a beneficial arrangement could be made between a veteran first grade teacher and myself.
In exchange for helping me with the ins and outs of first grade, her most challenging student could visit my classroom when a change of scenery was needed for *Gregory.
I always knew when he was coming to visit. I could hear things escalating from across the hall. I’d educated my students about responses that help or harm when someone is having a hard time. They knew to keep working when Gregory came to the door with his incomplete work in hand.
I’d greet him the same way each and every time:
“We are working, and we are learning here… and there is a place for you to do that with us.”
Gregory would complete his work often standing up at the table, using his idle time to draw the most intricate motorcycles on the back of his paper.
Right before winter break that year, his teacher came to me and said Gregory and his mother requested he be switched permanently to my class, noting my classroom structure and teaching methods better suited him. I was happy to do whatever was best for everyone, and the school principal approved this unusual request.
I thought a lot about how I would inform my students of the change. I landed on the following words that would both empower them and offer Gregory a fresh start.
“Being human means understanding what things help us best learn and grow. Since each of us has unique experiences and abilities, we need different things to blossom and thrive.
Being able to say, ‘I am not doing my best here. I think something needs to change,’ is very brave. Sometimes we know why we are not growing in certain places, other times we don’t.
Gregory realized that he learns and grows best in our classroom, and he did a very brave thing by telling someone. It just so happened to work out that we have a place for Gregory here, and he’s going to be part of our classroom family for the rest of the year.
The fact that Gregory likes being in our classroom says a lot about you and how you make him feel. I ask that you continue being your kind and caring selves.”
The students honored my request, and Gregory continued to thrive in our classroom. He became known at the fastest cleaner. The sketch artist. The spelling pro. The one who always sensed what people needed and offered to help.
In the spring, an irate parent stormed into our classroom before school started. The father was upset that I had spoken to his son about calling a classmate “jerk.”
“We call each other ‘jerks’ all the time at our house. My kid shouldn’t get in trouble for that!” the man shouted.
“In our class, we treat each other with kindness and respect; there is no name calling,” I explained with more confidence than I felt, standing beneath this towering man. “When we have a conflict, we use healthy ways to resolve the issue, which is what I spoke to your son about. We can schedule a meeting with the principal if you’d like to discuss this further.”
My voice was shaking, and I was sweating. I didn’t know what was going to happen. All of a sudden, I felt a comforting presence. It was Gregory, standing close beside me.
I knew he stood there for protection, but he served another purpose – I was able to see this father was not thriving.
What I said next surprised me. “You must care a lot about your son to come all way here. He’s such a smart boy. His knowledge of rocks is incredible.”
The man’s face softened; his shoulders sagged.
“Did you see his amazing rock art hanging up outside the classroom?” I asked, pointing to the hall.
After walking outside the classroom, the man told me he’d separated from his spouse and how hard it was on his son.
I gave the father my word that I’d do everything I could to provide a safe, stable, loving environment for his son.
“Our classroom is his home too,” I said.
I kept that promise, realizing once again, the importance of recognizing how the struggles each student came to school with each day impacted their learning and behavior.
For the rest of the year, we had an anonymous WORRY JAR at the back of the room where students could write down their worries. If they used the yellow slip, the worry was for me to read silently. If the slip was blue, it could be read out loud. We’d take a few minutes after lunch each day to read a few of the worries, which, over time, were only written on blue paper.
“Oh, friend…,” I would say to the class knowing the vulnerable author was sitting there somewhere. “Thank you for bravely sharing. We hold that worry with you today. You are not alone.”
The afternoons were always a little kinder, a little gentler than the mornings given the awareness created with through this sharing process.
It was a miraculous school year. The teachers of special classes and lunchroom workers would often stop us in the hall to say, “This is the most loving class! What’s the secret?”
The secret was that there were no secrets.
Being able to show up as their truest selves – scars, insecurities, worries and all – created an environment ripe for learning, loving, and overcoming.
Although the children’s worries were specific, they all translated to, “Something is making it hard for me to thrive right now. Please be patient and kind as I work through this.”
I believe speaking our pain is the first step to healing, even if there are no easy answers.
This summer, I thought about my first-grade class when my 15-year-old shared information so incomprehensible, so painful that I wanted to hide in the smallest, darkest hole I could find. But in that moment, I felt the loving presence of my students, translating what my daughter was saying into these brave words:
“I am not thriving. I need to make changes. I can’t do this alone.”
With time, patience, healthy coping tools, protective boundaries, and no secrets,
Despair is turning into discovery.
Uncertainty is turning into trust.
Pain is turning into purpose..
Being human often means learning the hard way what circumstances hinder our growth and wellbeing. It takes a lot of courage to admit when we’ve come to this painful realization.
In those moments, may we remember the power of this response:
“Come… there is a place for you here to discover what DOES help you thrive. We can do it together; you are not alone.”