It was a third grade classroom, and I was part of a team of folks walking through and looking for evidence of something or other. The problem with asking me to enter a classroom of students as an observer is my predilection to thinking kids are pretty amazing and worth conversing with.
“What are you learning about?” I asked a little guy toward the front of the room.
“Did my teacher send for you to come get me?”
It took all of three seconds to read the situation. Broken fragment of a pencil, nothing written on his paper while his classmates were at least half a page in, grimace on a face that’s wondering just how many shoes life has for the dropping. I’d inadvertently joined a slow-boil freakout just as it was reaching a simmer.
“I don’t even know your teacher, I am just here because I’m curious what you’re all working on. Oh, man, your pencil’s broken. Here’s my pen. Huh. I don’t know how to do this problem on your paper here.”
“Do you teach here?”
“I work in all of the schools.”
“What do you teach?”
“I’m an English teacher. It’s been a while since I’ve done some of the math like what’s on your paper. Will you help me remember how to figure these things out? Unless you don’t know how to do it. If you don’t, that’s cool. I bet we could figure it out.”
“Like this one, how would you figure this one out? It doesn’t look like a usual math problem…”
“Because it’s algebra.”
“Oh, what’s that mean?”
“Like, you just…” and he kept talking and explaining. The grimace retreating to the corners of his mouth, his shoulders lowering, examining my pen, doing a poor job of hiding his enjoyment of using a green pen to do math.
The exchange took 4 minutes. The unintended de-escalation wasn’t fueled by anything other than wanting this student to understand I wasn’t the adult he expected me to be.
More often than I’d expect, my work includes being happier and sillier than students expect. I’m consistently taken aback in the powerful trust we can build with students when we show them we are willing to listen.
That’s the opportunity each of us who has the privilege to working with children has each day. We get to change expectations by raising expectations. We get to throw joy where anger or apathy is expected. We get to be kind.
We have the exceptional challenge every day of being better versions of ourselves every day than our students expect us to be.