Full Hearts: More Reflections on a Refocused Classroom

“Miss, don’t give him a hard time. He in his feelings,” explained a student about the boy with his head on his desk.

I’m white and almost forty, so this took further explanation. The boy was experiencing his first breakup, and his friends were asking me to show some respect and give him space. I bundled the classwork on his desk, told him to let me know when he was ready, patted him on the back, and went on with class. Not too long later, he collected himself and finished the work in a hurry before the bell.

First Year Sarah would not have done that. When I was new to middle school, consistency, rigor, and high expectations were my mantra. Today, my guiding phrase is Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose!” I haven’t given up on rigor or pushing kids toward excellence, but I’m learning that the soil for that kind of growth is soft. It’s joy. It’s love.

I learned this as a stepparent first. When I remarried, my husband was in the middle of a major push at work. The kids and I were left to work out homework and dinner and bedtimes on our own, and it was messy. A military brat and long-time teacher, I fell back on my default setting: order!

The kids weren’t really buying it.

Eventually, they helped me see that my order wasn’t theirs, and that the timetable wasn’t going to work until we had a foundation of trust and love. I turned to Dr. Laura Markham’s book, Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids, and we started to unravel the knots I’d tied. I started bringing my book to work and my questions about my students — “Why can’t they just….??” — turned to “What are they trying to get?”

Even when they can’t express them, students have goals for their actions. Dr. Markham’s book helped me change my perspective: when a student is constantly interrupting, I can ask, “Does she need a chance to share her knowledge in a more appropriate way, or is she looking for feedback from me?” When a student is constantly “ranking” on another, I can ask, “Does he need another way to show his humor and verbal skills, or does he need support in finding positive ways to interact with his peers?”

One of my big weak spots as a teacher is how I handle talking back. For me as a military brat, this behavior is deeply transgressive and I have a tendency to overreact. With my focus on “Full Hearts,” and reading Markham’s book, I’ve started to say things like, “I’m happy to talk to you at the end of class but right now we’re moving on.”

Honestly, I might still overreact at the end of class but not engaging in instant clapback is a step forward to me. My students are open to my apologies, too, which means that I’m making progress.