I like to play a little game with my toothbrush each morning as I cleanse my mouth and remove unwanted bacteria and food particles from my teeth and gums. As I use an electric toothbrush, it has a built-in timer. After two minutes of use, it emits a special signal to let me know that I have reached the required brushing time mark. It stops and starts quickly three times, pulsating in my mouth and hand as it does so. It feels uncomfortable and controlling. Why does my toothbrush yell at me much like my parents did when I was younger? “Brush your teeth or they will rot out of your head,” my father would say each morning before I joined him in the kitchen for breakfast. While my parents were only trying to instill positive life actions within me, my toothbrush doing the same thing to me as an adult is simply uncalled for and degrading. You’re not the boss of me Mr. Toothbrush, and so you can’t tell me what to do. To rectify this situation and regain control of my life, I make it a goal, each and every morning, to complete my toothbrushing routine prior to the electrical, manipulative, toothbrush telling me that I have failed miserably as a brusher of my own teeth. If I succeed in this quest for glory, a sense of great accomplishment washes over me as if I had just broken some important world record. I imagine myself receiving a fancy medal made of toothpaste and floss. If I am unsuccessful in my endeavor, then I begin my day with a bit of angst as some anthem from the Grunge-era plays on a loop in my brain for several minutes. While I often use this sleepy, toothbrushing time as a way to contemplate my goals for the day, I usually struggle to stay focused on the only real goal that matters– beating my toothbrush’s timer. However, there are those few, rare days where the stars seem to be aligned and I can feel Kurt Cobain’s presence shining down upon me reminding me to fight the system, and BAM! I beat the vicious ticking time bomb within my toothbrushing device. Today was one of those days, and it felt so good to stick it to the man or woman in charge. Take that Mr. Toothbrush, I won and you lost. You have no control over me or my mouth. The taste of victory was minty fresh.
Like me, you’re probably wondering what oral health care has to do with teaching and creating a caring class community: Breaking down barriers and working towards one’s goals. Effective teachers sometimes go against the grain to do what they know is best to help and support their students. They don’t always listen to what those in charge tell them to do. Great educators fight for their students. Amazing teachers set goals for themselves and work daily to meet them. They persevere in the face of adversity and never give up. My toothbrush timer is a metaphor for all those obstacles that have made it challenging for me to do what I know is best to help my students throughout my years as an educator. Today was a great reminder for me to keep fighting the good fight no matter how many extra hours or money it may take. I want my students to have the best possible chance of happiness in life, no matter what hurdles they may face. I strive to spread the news of the many wonderful things happening in education at my school and around the world. I brush my teeth quickly to help foster light and love in this often dark world in which we live.
Wow, that’s quite the stretch. But then again, isn’t that what teaching is all about? We try new things and take risks to help engage and reach our students. I’m simply taking a slightly different path to arrive at the same location. Last Thursday, my students and I read and discussed different examples of free verse poetry. After each piece, I asked the students to make observations on what they noticed. Following the reading of one poem, a student explained how she had interpreted it in a very different way than the rest of the class. “I think it’s about love. She had it and then it went away, like how snow melts each spring,” she said. I was blown away, as I had not seen the piece this way. I praised her for her unique perspective and then got on my soapbox for a brief moment to pontificate on the unique beauty of poetry. “Each person takes from a poem what they want or need. How I interpret a poem may be very different from how you all see a piece. And that is perfectly wonderful. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This one student saw something different in a poem and wasn’t afraid to share her thoughts. I love that I have been able to create such an open and accepting classroom community in the fifth grade this year.
Reflecting on this lesson and my amazing students, I started to think about an upcoming workshop session that I will be leading on social-emotional learning. How can I help educators see the value in cultivating a caring classroom community? How can I best impart my knowledge and experience on the topic with others in an engaging manner? What exactly should I talk about or focus on in my 90-minute session? While I have some ideas, I also was feeling a little stuck. So, I brought my dilemma to my students during our Morning Meeting on Friday. After sharing with them that I am in the process of planning my workshop session, I asked them, “How have we created a strong, nurturing, compassionate, and caring community and family within the fifth grade class this year?” And again, my students amazed and wowed me with their ideas and thoughts. Almost every student had something to share on the topic. By the end of our brief, six-minute chat, I had filled the whiteboard with their suggestions. They have noticed things that we have done in the classroom that I never even thought of being part of our social-emotional curriculum. For each example they shared, I had them explain how it has fostered a sense of community and care within our class. They blew me away with their understanding of why we do what we do in the fifth grade. Remarkable. I truly am so fortunate to be working at such an amazing school with wonderful and intuitive students. Here is what they had to say…
- “The Mindfulness techniques we practice help bring us closer together as a community. Yoga, for example, helps us calm down and focus on the day. Mindful Meditation allows us to practice self-control and be aware of how we are feeling.”
- “Morning Meetings help us to learn empathy and understand each other and how they are feeling. The Bucket Filling book, activity, and reviews help us to focus on the positive ways we can help support each other.”
- “The I Feel… statements we use help us to practice self-control as we learn to channel our feelings and actions into words. They help us to become more compassionate towards one another, as we share exactly how we are feeling when big emotions take over.”
- “The Gratitude Wall teaches us to focus on how others help us so that we can share our words of thanks with our classmates. It feels really good to be thanked and to give thanks. It fosters a sense of positivity within us.”
- “The reflection activities we do throughout the year help us to learn from our mistakes so that we can grow and improve.”
- “The Forest Friday activities help bring us together as a group because we complete activities and challenges together. We also have lots of opportunities to help each other. Like when (a student) helped me and my partner start a fire. That was really kind of him.”
- “The freedom to choose activities or projects, at times, helps make us feel free and open to make our own decisions. We like that you trust us enough to make good decisions.”
- “Reader’s Workshop and how you let us choose our books leads to us being and feeling more calm. We like being able to read what we want to read. You trust us and it makes us feel good about you and the class.”
- “The Marble Jar and Bonus Points help us feel like we are doing good. We like to be rewarded and so we do good things. Now, we just do good things because we are so used to doing it. It’s like muscle memory for us.”
- “The way we talk about not using the C-word (can’t) and how important mindset is. That really helps us to learn perseverance and the power of positive thinking.”
- “The Acts of Kindness wall helps us to celebrate and notice all the caring things we do as a class. It feels good to add new things to the wall.”
- “The positive posters around the classroom remind us to do and be good. We read them over and over again and they get stuck in our minds. They help to change how we think, from negative to positive.”
Back in late August, before the school year even began, I set a goal for myself: I want to foster a sense of kindness, caring, and compassion in my fifth grade classroom this year. Who knew that almost every little thing I do as a teacher helps to cultivate that sense of community within my students each and every day? From the little things to the big things, my students are learning how important it is to take care of each other and feel like a part of something more than just a class in a school. I was floored by how attuned they are to everything that happens in the classroom. They seem to grasp the purpose of everything that I do with them in class. It’s amazing, and an absolutely crucial reminder of how important this work on social-emotional learning truly is. Our students are always watching and paying attention; therefore, we must be sure that we give them lots of positive and kind things to notice as we work to cultivate caring classroom communities.