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Teaching Means Witnessing Small Acts of Humanity All the Time

Showcase 2016 (1).jpgBy Sydney Chaffee

Last spring, I stood backstage in an historic theater, peeking out from behind a thick velvet curtain at the audience filling up. My students paced around in the wings in various states of costume. They had been preparing for this moment for months.

Every year all of my 9th graders—including those with autism, English language learners, and even kids who begin the year with crippling stage fright—put on a play. Their performance marks the culmination of a yearlong partnership with Boston's Huntington Theatre Company: nine months of deepening literacy skills through the arts.

As I dropped the curtain back into place, I could see that my kids backstage were completely melting down.

One of the stars of the show, who was set to narrate the opening scene, began stalking around with his fidget spinner, muttering to himself, "I can't do it. I just can't do it. I'm not going out there."

Another boy, who fashioned himself as the toughest kid in the school, started yelling: "Why are you so scared? You're just gonna quit? That's stupid! If he's quitting, I'm quitting!"

He plopped down into a chair and pulled his shirt over his face. A girl nearby burst into tears, the stage manager hurried past whispering into a headset, and somebody knocked over a bunch of props.

Just as I was about to do my teacher thing—step in, comfort everyone, and manage the situation—something beautiful happened. The crying girl found herself surrounded by a gaggle of her peers, who threw their arms around her and reassured her.

"It's going to be okay."

"You know your lines."

"Let's go practice again."

Fidget Spinner's friends shoved earbuds in his ears so he could listen to a song that would calm him down. And the tough guy? Two seniors who had been through this four years earlier pulled his shirt off his face to reveal streaks of tears running down his cheeks. "I'm really scared," Fidget Spinner admitted to them. They rubbed his back and gave him a pep talk. One by one, other 9th graders came over, hugged him, and told him, "You're going to do great... We need you," while I stepped back, realizing that my students didn't need me to fix anything for them.

Chaffee 1.jpg

At my school, we teach our students the value of five Habits of Scholarship: responsibility, effort, critique, collaboration and compassion. Those first three fit pretty neatly into the work of school. Do your work, do it to your best ability, take feedback—these are obvious skills our students need to build as scholars. But the last two—collaboration and compassion—aren't always as easy to teach. Sometimes, 15-year-olds have a hard time understanding why working together and being nice matter to their schoolwork. But backstage, as everything threatened to collapse, I saw my students taking the risk to truly demonstrate compassionate collaboration. Not for a grade, not because anyone was watching, but because they are amazing human beings with a boundless capacity for love.

That is why I am in love with teaching. Working with young people means that I get to witness these small acts of brilliant humanity all the time. I get to continually be inspired and challenged and amazed. I get to watch as students transform themselves into people who will change the world.

And I can think of nothing I could spend my time doing that is more powerful or rewarding than that.


Sydney Chaffee is the 2017 National Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). She teaches ninth grade Humanities at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, Massachusetts.

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