Third grade teacher, Sara Nedwick, shared this story with me. It’s the type of story that reminds us why the small moments matter. Her class was walking down the hallway when one of her students stepped onto her untied shoelace and tumbled. She was a bit hurt and embarrassed, at first. But was quickly distracted by the sight of two boys pulling away from the group and rushing back to see if she was okay. One of the boys sat on the floor and tied her shoe.
In the Susan Verde book, I Am Human, she writes, “A bad day can become a great day with kindness.” These boys demonstrated in one sweet and instinctual act of empathy that people of all ages have the power to heal and rejuvenate.
I’ve been an elementary teacher for more than 20 years. In some school districts, they’d declare me a Master teacher, based on time served alone. But I am far from a Master. Each day as I join my students in exploring what they want to know, I’m humbled by the enormity of what I do not know. But here’s what I have learned as an experienced practitioner in the teaching and learning trade.
When we learn through the service of others, we build nurturing and trusting relationships that can help us get through the occasional bad moment or bad day. Some days we’re tripped up by our own shoelaces or maybe it’s something else we left untied and untended. But when we stand by a friend, a colleague, or provide support for someone seeking comfort in a new neighborhood, through our relationships, the world becomes a place that’s intentionally constructed and serendipitously designed to pick us up when we fall.
Ralph Branca, the legendary Brooklyn Dodgers general manager known for breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier with the signing of Jackie Robinson, once said, “Luck is the residue of design.” Each of us has the power to create the conditions that enable good things to happen when they’re needed most.
This is no surprise to experienced teachers. We know that when students feel their contributions are valued, they become more trusting of their environment and learning partners. In turn, they are more likely to exercise their creative engines and push beyond learning obstacles. For teachers, there’s gratification in creating the conditions that permit a child to share knowledge with everyone, including the teacher, and watching them walk out the door a little taller. Joyful teaching is symbiotic. Teachers need their students as much as students need their teachers.
Educators are in a tough line of work. We are not firefighters, but we put out fires. We are not in law enforcement, but we strive to be just. We cannot do all that we hope to achieve without the strength of others. And it all begins with a sense of humility, gratitude, and working in the service of others.
Take for instance, Ella and Yuzuki. They are second grade classmates. At a recent lunchtime Classical Cafe performance, Ella prepared to sing a Christmas song. She stood behind the microphone, wearing a festive outfit and radiant smile. But once the first notes of her song played on the sound system, her smile drained away. Her eyes stayed bright, but showed doubt. She quick-stepped off the stage and another performer took her place. Then another. And another.
Ella remained off stage, being consoled by her mother, in person, and her father via FaceTime. Then along came her friend Yuzuki. She rubbed Ella’s back and leaned into her friend’s ear. Ella smiled and moments later she was back on stage. Yuzuki stood by her side. Far enough to give Ella the spotlight, close enough so Ella could feel her presence. When the performance ended, Ella bounded off the stage to raucous applause that for many of us felt as much for Yuzuki as it was for Ella. But that’s not why Yuzuki took the stage. She did it because that’s what friends do. They stand by each other’s side, when needed most. And for those of us who had the good fortune to experience this moment, we all walked out of the room a little taller.