Even though I spend a lot of the summer doing school work, I make a deliberate effort to stay away from school for the summer. Two days ago, I returned to my classroom for the first time since June 13th, our last day of school. I was meeting with some other department members to review plans for the upcoming year, so I figured I would go in early to get some things organized.
Before leaving, I went through my file cabinet in search of a beginning-of-the-year handout I needed when I came across the uniquely labelled folder “50th Birthday- Letter to Students.”
Let me explain…..
In October 2018, I turned 50. A couple of months before that, my childhood friend Amy and college friend Megan wanted to do something to celebrate my birthday. Megan had hosted a wonderful 40th birthday party and would have gladly hosted a 50th. While I loved my 40th and it is a memory I will never forget, I was thinking of something low-key for my 50th, more of a non-event celebration. I didn’t want to add one more obligation to people’s to do list or calendar.
After thinking of different options, I thought of something that would combine what really matters to me – people and words. Perhaps not a traditional 50th birthday celebration, I told Amy and Megan that I would love to hear from people in my life– whether a text, a FaceBook message, a card, a note— anything. And I didn’t care if those words arrived before my birthday, on my birthday, or seven months after my birthday…… I wanted people to write when it was convenient for them, when they could take a minute or two to reflect on how our paths have crossed, share a memory, a thought– anything, really….. I knew it would bring me joy to hear from people, to know that they took a moment to think of our friendship. The beauty of written words is that they are permanent and, whenever I feel like connecting with that person, I can reread their words.
As my birthday approached and I was reading some of the messages I received, I realized that I wanted-actually, needed– to write a letter, one that I had thought of writing in the past but didn’t know for what occasion. For a long time, I wanted to write a letter to my students, a letter in which I shared why they matter to me. As someone who often jokes and can be quick with words (sometimes too quick), I was taking a risk. I had no idea how it would be received. To a high school student, it might seem random and, quite frankly, weird, but, as someone who is always encouraging students to take risks in the classroom, I decided to take one too.
My first class arrived and, before we began what I had planned for the day, I explained that it was my 50th birthday and that I had a letter I wanted to share. I gave each student a hard copy and read it to the class. I wanted them to hear my words, to know that I was speaking from my heart. After I finished reading, I knew I had made the right decision to risk sharing …. my writing….. my thoughts…. my heart… my vulnerability….I was humbled by the students’ reactions and genuine words…
Just a couple weeks after I shared the letter, we had parent conferences. I was surprised when several parents I met with referenced the letter…. I was stunned a.) that the students brought the letters home and b.) that they shared them with their parents. One parent talked about welling up while reading the letter……
In May, long after I had shared the letter, I had several students tell me that my letter had really impacted them…. Even though they knew through my actions that I cared about and supported them as students and as individuals, reading my words, my reasoning helped them understand me better. The written words and my willingness to risk showed them how much I care…..They could see I was putting myself out there….
I share this story because it reminded me that, even though our actions speak loudly and show students how we feel, sometimes they don’t see those actions the way we intend them. They might not realize all the thinking that goes into planning our lessons, instruction, curriculum…They might not see that the way we arrange our desks or have our classroom set up is a way to show what we value and that we care about them. Yes, they know that we care overall but sometimes they might not see it as clearly as we hope they do…
Even though my 50th birthday has come and gone, I will continue to share this letter with my students at the beginning of each year. I want them to know in clear terms just how much I care about them, what I see in them, how much they mean to me… After all, I was thrilled to get those messages from others for my birthday. Why not do the same for my students?
Food For Thought:
- How do you show your students, directly or indirectly, that you care about them?
- Do you encourage your students to take risks in your classroom?
- What are some ways you show your students that you are taking risks?
- What is something positive that came from taking a risk?