I came into this knowing one thing—
I had no idea what I was doing.
I mean, I had my Writing Center training which had endowed me with this interesting perspective of simultaneously understanding every complex nuance that is this world, and understanding that nothing in this world could ever be truly understood. If anything, it had taught me that one can never be prepared no matter how many scenarios we have invented in our minds. And that is exactly where I was—sitting in the parking lot across the street from Charity Childcare Ministry, preparedly un-prepared…and hyperventilating a little.
See, I have a daughter. A ridiculously clever, cloying little two-year-old who is currently peeping out at me from the doorway from her room 2 hours and 23 minutes past her bed time, clutching the satin goodwill XXL nightshirts that she long ago dubbed her “blue blankey.”
She is my control experiment. If I get her interested in a movie that is a bit too mature for her or feed her too much sugar the only person that can get mad at me is myself—I have to deal with that new naughty word she is tittering way too loudly at the kimchi lady in the farmer’s market, I have to stay up an extra three hours to make sure she doesn’t climb on top of the dresser again.
These kids that I was about to meet today, they were the real deal, the big shebang. Any error I made here could be catastrophic.
My preparedly un-preparedness, it had to be perfect.
As I passed out the pens we had scraped together last second—no one had seen a traditional pencil sharpener in a good 4 years—I reminded myself that I was NOT a teacher. I had no qualifications to be a teacher, I had never taken a class with EDU in the course number, I was not here to teach a thing. I was here for the same reason that I had been in the Marian University Writing Center: to discuss writing through a relationship built upon mutual respect, not authority.
And then, over the course of the next 5 weeks I spelled Sharkboy approximately 27 times.
And in that 5 weeks I learned two very important things:
1) That most kids don’t get credit or the extent of respect that they need to thrive.
Through interacting with my own daughter, I’ve learned that when I say she is not capable of something yet—like understanding simple directions or learning how to pee in the potty consistently—it is more likely that I am not capable or willing to teach it to her yet. As a result, her progress can be hindered by my caffeine dependence.
At Charity Childcare Ministry, I had gone in prepared to tell students over and over again “it doesn’t matter how you spell it, what matters is your ideas.” But regardless of my continued spiel, students kept asking me to spell little words for them—words that I deemed insignificant at first.
When I caved and spelled a word, I felt like a failure—the other teachers were capable of saying “just sound it out” and walking away, but I was spineless.
And then I started making deals: “I’ll spell this one, if you try to spell the next one.”
Immediately there was a switch in my students—those who looked at their paper crestfallenly when I had asked to sound a word out before, now jumped at the opportunity to try. It made me realize that I have been culturally groomed to believe that when a child told me they couldn’t do something—it was because they hadn’t tried hard enough to do it. But when I began to give them credit for deciding that something—like learning to spell a word—was important to them, something amazing happened. Once they realized I respected their requests, they began to respect my request: to just keep writing. Their constant need to spell correctly may not have been important to us, but it was important to them.
It’s kind of like trying to run a mile. You have this desire to, and everyone is rooting for you, but when you ask someone to teach you how to tie your shoes, they say “Just keep running, you’re doing great!” You will be much more successful if YOU don’t have to live with the nagging potential of tripping over your shoelaces.
And yes, a lot of students began the class raising their hand and asking me how to spell “Sharkboy” because they were simply trying to get that one-on-one attention from a teacher. Jeremiah, one of our youngest fits this scenario exquisitely.
Jeremiah has energy. Lots of it.
He also has this big, cheeky grin that makes up for his excessive chair-wiggling.
During our first few open mic sessions, Jeremiah caused quite a ruckus—crawling under the table, throwing pencils, getting up to cabbage patch. As a result, he was often forced to share his work last in an attempt to reward him if he sat still throughout the course of the other readers. But as I watched closer, dubbing myself the official Jeremiah-Watch, I began to notice each time he got discouraged as he was passed up to read because he had slipped out of his chair. I realized Jeremiah probably dealt with this same situation a lot—he was aware that he would be last, so why not just have some fun anyway?
So one day I pulled up a chair next to him during open mic time instead of standing over him like a security guard—I become just another listener at his table. And each time a turn passed and he stayed in the chair, I leaned over and told him that he was doing great and that I was proud of him.
Yes, Jeremiah needed the attention that he got from dancing around the room, but I made sure that he got it for a different reason—now he was getting attention from a friend for behaving rather than getting attention from an authority figure for misbehaving. I respected his need for attention and he respected my need for him to sit still.
And this brings me to my second lesson:
2) I learned to stop taking myself so seriously.
From the first moment I was called a teacher at Charity Childcare Ministry, I was a teacher. The students didn’t care about whether I had my degree or any experience or what was on my resume. They just cared that I was there to encourage them. As a scholar I spend most of my time in a position where everything I do is judged, and everything I say is questioned. At Charity, no one is judged. Kids aren’t interested in labels and qualifications. They are interested in the fact that I willingly stood in front of 30 kids at a time and “shook it out” twice a week. At Charity, no one laughed at me and said that I was obviously too goofy to have anything important to say.
Because to kids being silly isn’t just okay. It’s necessary.
By: Khirston Sims