Recently I was working with three classes of first graders, starting a fairly ambitious bookmaking project. Students are guided by their teachers through writing strategies, then I visit the classroom to help students showcase their work. The books we make are not typical in any sense. Based on an elegant structure which I call an origami pamphlet, each student is given an 18” x 24” sheet of cover weight black paper which they fold down into an eight page booklet. A slice is made through the paper’s midline and a window is cut into the center of the book. One wrong cut or careless fold ruins the project, so I urge the students to be quite careful. The more they work, the more they become invested in keeping the project from being destroyed by their own hands.
On my first day in the classroom three students were absent, five special ed students were joining the class, and there was lots of buzz about an impending snow storm. Because of the absences and the push-in students, some students were displaced from their regular desks and routines were disrupted. There had been no outside recess and, remember, these are first graders. I had an hour and fifteen minutes to get through my lesson plan. The noise levels kept rising as these 6- and 7-year olds worked, first transforming their paper into a tall, four panel accordion structures, then cutting and folding again.
At one point the teacher came up to me with an apologetic look and said something that acknowledged how bumpy this ride was. Students were chatting, standing, and playing with the altered paper. Some were singing while they worked. Whenever it was time to move on to the next step it took some doing to rein in their attention. Now here was the classroom teacher, next to me, acknowledging the challenges she thought I might be feeling. I had a number of choices on how to respond:
I could accept her sympathetic offering and we could commiserate together about how difficult it could be to do this work; I could take responsibility for bringing in a project that might be too challenging; I could blame the day, the kids, the change in routine, and the lack of outside recess; or I could do something else. I looked at the teachers and said to her, quite sincerely, “I think it’s going great!”
Her face lit up like the weight of the world had just been taken off her shoulders and she replied, “So do I!” After all, the students were engaged, they were getting through the work, and they were excited and impressed with what they were working on. In fact, not one of the seventy children that I worked with that day made an error that would have ruined their project or wasted any material.
I have respect and compassion for students, knowing they can struggle with new skills. I revel in their enthusiasm when they have created something that they are proud of. I believe that they want to learn what I am teaching them. At the start of the project I said to them, “You know how you’re always being told to follow the directions? This is where that skill comes in really handy.” They smiled. When the noise level rose over and over again, I refused to feel frustrated. I had to work a bit harder than usual — being mindful of using a broad range of tones in my speaking, drawing illustrations on the smart board, and making individual connections to students to get us through the class, but they stayed happy.
I also have respect and compassion for the classroom teacher. I know that if I had expressed even the slightest amount of frustration with the class, the teacher would have been embarrassed. I never ever want a teacher to feel any reason for embarrassment when I am a guest in the classroom. The next thing that happens when a teacher is embarrassed is that she shares her displeasure with her students after I am out of earshot. Then, not only does the teacher feel disappointed but all of the students feel bad, even the ones who were working in a more focused way.
Seeing this teacher’s reaction to my pleasure in her students’ progress reminded me of how important it is to be mindful about the fact that this time in the classroom is not about me or my comfort level or my agenda, instead it’s about creating a good experience for the students and supporting the goals of the teacher.
Next thing I knew, the teacher had slipped something into my pocket. It was a small handful of chocolate candy kisses.