“Academics don’t exist in a vacuum.” Towards the end of Chapter 4 Narrator Sam Chaltain says that, as we see Irea standing with her arms folded and a stubborn expression on her face. Imagine trying to teach her an academic skill in that moment. Whether it is a stubborn child, an angry child, or a distracted child, the teacher who finds out what’s going on, then maybe finds out the layer beneath that, then acknowledges the emotions and addresses the parts that can be addressed, is developing a relationship that will allow growth in all areas.
Our complex emotional world is present when we make art, cook dinner, or cross the street. But somehow as a society we seem to think that ‘school learning’ is different, and can be accomplished in isolation from the rest of our experiences. In our hearts we know it isn’t true, but still often act as if it were.
So how does a school keep their eye on the prize of learning to read, compute, and theorize, and at the same time make space for individual needs? Most of us are already doing it without thinking, as we “multitask” our way through the day. We prioritize, but we constantly adjust to the realities of the moment. If a butterfly lands on your hand, you stop and admire it. If a child cries, your desire to comfort comes naturally and trumps your original intention to finish typing that essay. And the event inevitably contributes something to what comes next. Observing the butterfly makes you a better observer of many other small experiences. Comforting the child may not only make it easier for her to focus, but may give new depth to the next story she writes, or to your essay! It is bound to create more trust in you as her mentor. Ignoring those same tears has a consequence as well, even if it isn’t as obvious as Irea throwing something.
I noticed that many teachers at Mission Hill encouraged children who had caused a flare up in the classroom to say to the person they had injured in some way, “What can I do to make you feel better?” Of course you can’t always “make” someone feel better, but the intent here is clear: take responsibility, and show your desire to rectify the situation. At our school we used Facts Feelings Needs Requests in a similar way. In giving that responsibility to make amends to the children, the experience also floats on to the other efforts those students will be involved with. It’s much easier to own your work when you feel your worth.