Years ago, on the first day of school, Nicholas walked into my classroom. Nicholas was a full head taller than the other kids, and though he wasn't necessarily older, he was much more confident than the other newly minted second graders. He hadn't come with his parents to “meet the teacher” afternoon earlier in the week, so I hadn't been sure he was still enrolled at our school, and yet here he stood at the door to my trailer classroom loudly asking the nearest kid, “This Mrs. Wall's class?” before walking in like he owned the place. His parents were nowhere to be seen - this 7-year-old had gotten off the bus, asked around, found our class, and simply presented himself. It was a perfect depiction of his personality in a nutshell, and it gave me a hint of how he would take charge of my class in the coming days.
Kids like Nicholas are in every classroom in the country. Kids with louder-than-the-teacher voices, kids who expect their classmates to obey them, kids who struggle with reading, and kids with very little parental support. It would have been very easy, that first morning, for me to harden my heart to Nicholas and mentally set him up to be the problem child, the negative mascot of the class who garnered most of my attention and whose name my husband would come to know from my daily rants.
Something was different that year, however, and for some reason I chose to really learn who Nicholas was and try to get inside his head. Perhaps it was because it was the second year I had done home visits with all of my students, and something about seeing these kids' earnestly cleaned bedrooms and their drawings on the refrigerator, and being introduced to the family pet while mom cooked Hamburger Helper suddenly brought into focus where school ranked in the overall picture of their lives. While I had Nicholas in my classroom for 6 ½ hours a day, there was another world in which he lived that we teachers had never seen.
Kids like Nicholas are why I love teaching. The power we hold in our hands as teachers is stomach-droppingly powerful. We decide whether a kid has a good year or a bad year. We can influence how a parent responds to their child, how that child feels about himself, and whether school becomes a place of love and safety or a place of shame and self-doubt. How we choose to respond to a child, every child, contributes to those children's beliefs about themselves and their own abilities for years to come. It's an awesome responsibility, and one we should be fully conscious of as we enter these first days of school.
My hope for teachers as this new year begins is that we all have the contemplative space we need in our days to be fully aware of this power we wield. Here's hoping we can come to understand the stories behind all of our little Nicholas's.