Feeding the Mind and the Soul

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“Just the facts and nothing but the facts” has become a rallying cry for many parents who fear the socio-emotional aspects of teaching. They worry that teachers today are a bit too concerned about the mental health of their students and not enough about how well they are gaining knowledge and skills. At the same time some parents are pushing for more of a presence of Christian ideas in classrooms where God seems to have been silenced. There is additional worry about how American history is being taught. With all of these issues teachers are continually worried that even a single comment or action may lead to trouble. It’s like walking a tightrope every single day and they are stressed trying to do their jobs and be safe at the same time.

I was an honest and perhaps overly caring teacher. I came to understand over time that until the most basic human needs of each student were addressed their ability to learn was impeded. I had to know and honor their moods, concerns and needs and ultimately inspire them to work hard to be their best selves. This always required me to honor their differences and to know each of them individually. Helping them through difficult personal moments was as important as teaching them algorithms and mathematical concepts. 

On a personal level I viscerally recall moving to a new neighborhood and a new school when I was a six year old entering the second grade. The people who lived around my house had been welcoming and helpful from the first day that we arrived to live among them, so I went to school filled with positive anticipation that was dashed by a teacher who failed to consider how crushing her words to me would be. 

There was a mix up on that first day and I was not listed as a member of any of the second grade classes. The principal took me and my mother to the teacher with whom I was supposed to be assigned. As the principal apologized and announced to the teacher that I was also one of her students an ugly discussion ensued. The teacher insisted that she did not have room for another pupil and argued that she did not want me in her class. After a lengthy and heated discussion the teacher reluctantly deferred to the principal and literally pushed me into her classroom and told me to sit on the floor in the back of the room until she got a desk for me. 

I don’t know if it was just my childish imagination or if the teacher actually decided to focus her anger on me. All I can say is that the year in her care was horrific for me. I dreaded going to school every single day. Somehow I felt that I had become her punching bag because no matter how hard I worked or how well I behaved she found fault with me. The coup-d ‘etat occurred on the final day of the school year when the teacher gave out awards. She proudly boasted that everyone in the class was so wonderful that it was the first time in her career that everyone would receive a certificate. 

One by one she called my classmates to the front of the room to praise them for conduct, attendance, grades, creativity, athletics. When all was said and done each student was smiling and holding an award. I sat there attempting to control the quivering of my lips and the tears that were welling in my eyes because my name had not been called. My only consolation was that when the final bell rang I would never have to see this woman again. 

Perhaps she just missed my name like my mother reassured me when I burst into our kitchen sobbing. I’d like to give her the benefit of the doubt but, I always tended to believe she was simply being vindictive. She showed no signs of liking me from that very first day. In my mind this is what happens when a teacher focuses only on the facts and doesn’t consider the needs of each student. Without the socio-emotional factor, a classroom can be cold and unforgiving for a child. Parents and politicians who think that taking away human kindness and understanding make schools more efficient simply do not understand the duty of educators to minister to the whole child. 

Over decades of working with students I have found that more often than not their learning difficulties can be traced to socio-emotional problems. Ignoring them leads to killing their spirit and their confidence. Teaching involves working with the whole child, not just the specific skills and knowledge listed as the curriculum. A young girl crying because her boyfriend just broke up can’t be ignored. In that moment she needs to know that somebody cares about her predicament. 

Students are thinkers. They are looking at the world and asking many difficult questions. They want educators who seem to understand them, not just drones spouting facts. One of the reasons that remote learning was so wrong for so many students during the pandemic was because of its impersonal nature. Those lessons and tests really gave little or no feedback, no consideration of the individual needs of the little souls who were as confounded by the fears and outcomes of a worldwide pandemic as the adults. 

I suspect that the parents making their demands are genuinely concerned about the focus and content of what their children are learning. It’s good for parents to be involved, but I would suggest that they not just accept the words of politicians and television reporting about what is happening in schools but instead ask to talk with the teachers and even to observe classes before making accusations that are untrue. I would also want them to know that teachers cannot be uncaring automatons without harming their students. A classroom should be a safe haven for every child who has to be there for more hours of the week than they spend awake with their families. If it is not a happy place, they feel defeated just as I did with the teacher who made me feel spurned. Nobody wants that for anyone, especially those who are very different from ourselves. Teaching is about feeding the mind and the soul. If we take away one or the other the child will suffer. What a terrible waste that would be.


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