Dear Student: I Don't Expect You to Be Perfect
Every fall, I am struck by a profound sense of responsibility as parents drop their children off in my classroom. Humbled by the mixture of faith and fear inherent in that moment, I meet moms and dads who hope that I will hold their children close, appreciate their unique traits, and help them inhabit their potential. Parents of unconventional learners have come to me with stories that have left them and their child in a state of academic PTSD. These parents count on me to invest in their children enough so that I can celebrate their abilities, understand their struggles, and, in some cases, help heal their childrens' school-based wounds.
However, even with the best intentions, I will occasionally move too fast, expect too much, miss a cue, drop a ball. I might even do all of those things with the same child (I really hope not). This is a hard truth to accept, particularly because I pride myself on being an educator who advocates for students with different learning profiles.
Over the past month, a trend has developed in social media. I refer to it as the "Dear Teacher Movement." Children with learning challenges, particularly dyslexia, have taken to the internet to share letters they have written to their new teachers, communicating their hopes and dreams for the upcoming school year. In these poignant and frequently unsettling appeals, students wish to remind teachers they are trying (even when it may not look like that); that they are smart and capable (even if they struggle with certain skills); and that they have high aspirations for their own learning (which they hope their teachers will share). Implied in these letters are previous teacher failures that prompted students to share in this way.
Teaching is complex. We try hard to get it right, but sometimes we fail. Even with more than twenty-five years of teaching experience, I still have blindspots. I hope that my students know that I am not judging their potential by their spelling or speed, or confusing their school struggles with lack of effort. However, learning disabilities like dyslexia can make assessing a student's ability and effort more difficult. Often, I need my students' feedback to help me determine how to best meet their learning needs. This fall, inspired by the Dear Teacher letters, I decided to write a different kind of letter to my students at the launch of the school year.
I am honored and thrilled to be your 5th grade teacher this year. I take my job very seriously, but despite my great effort and my good intentions, I sometimes fumble. Here are a few things that you should know.
- I was not a perfect student and I don't expect you to be.
- We all learn differently. This year I hope you will help me understand how you learn best.
- Spelling well and reading fast make learning easier, but they have nothing to do with intelligence. I will help you become better spellers and readers, but intelligence is much more complex. Some of the best thinkers struggled with school skills. Please don't get discouraged if some skills are hard for you. It does not mean that you are stupid (at all). This year we will try to identify some strategies to make school work less frustrating.
- Tell me if you are struggling. Effort can often be invisible. I wish I had a crystal ball, but I don't. Let me know if I assign something that feels overwhelming. That way, we can create effective supports or craft a workaround plan together.
- Sometimes I go too fast. I get too excited or ambitious or impatient. When I do, remind me to slow down. Everyone in the class will appreciate it, including me.
- I look forward to finding out what gets you up in the morning (besides your alarm). What are your dreams inside and outside of school? Let's try to connect them. That is where you will find the joy in learning.
Finally, sometimes school may not be easy, but it should never be miserable. Please don't suffer in silence.
I am interested to learn what other teachers do at the launch of the year to establish a culture that invites self-advocacy and reassures students that their classroom is a shame-free zone.