When I was in school, I never thought much about my teachers' kindness. As a parent, I realize that kindness is a teacher's most valuable gift, better than experience, humor or knowledge.
As a kid, I defined my teachers as "nice" or "mean." While they were mostly nice, the mean ones stuck with me. There was the elementary school nurse who stood me up in front of my fourth grade class as an example of poor grooming due to my wild, thick hair and the seventh grade art teacher who noted that I might just have worms because I was fidgeting in my seat.
More damaging was my senior year history teacher who listened politely as I nervously ran through my oral report on Roe vs. Wade. When I'd finally shuffled past my last index card and asked if there were any questions, she raised her hand, cocked her head and asked if it wasn't uncomfortable to wear a skirt so short and tight. She couldn't have known that my boyfriend had dumped me over the phone the night before, that I'd been so crushed that I'd crawled my seventeen-year-old self into my mother's bed, or that she had laid out my clothes for me that morning. My teacher might have guessed that as a shy scholarship student, I didn't need to be singled out. She must have known that what she'd said was unkind.
When I became a teacher ten years ago, I carried this experience with me and knew I would never be so mean. I never was, but in those years before I was a parent I never fully grasped the importance of kindness. In my first year I had to meet with an assigned mentor teacher once a week, a woman with teenaged children of her own. Once, as I tearfully lamented my frustration with a group of difficult students, she told me that she found some solace in reminding herself that they were all someone's children. At the time I was baffled by her non sequitor, a random statement of biological fact. Now, as a parent I can appreciate the perspective she offered; they are near-adults, but once were helpless infants, nervous kindergarteners.
My understanding of the importance of kindness has grown as Big E has. To the bus driver who made sure she had someone to sit with on the way home from kindergarten, the school secretary who stopped her first day sobbing, the skating teacher who patiently gave her try after try to pass out of her group and, when she didn't make it, explained her strengths and prospects so optimistically that we both left happy: Thank you, thank you, thank you. As a mother, I feel such huge gratitude for such small acts.
Before students reported for school, the faculty at the school where I teach was prescribed top priorites for the year: things like Rigor and Excellence, euphemisms for more impressive test scores. These are important and somewhat quantifiable. There are procedures and steps and suggestions published by PhDs and generated by blue ribbon panels that outline how to meet these objectives.
But kindness will be my unofficial priority for the year, and the steps to achieving it are not as clear cut, its results not so easily translated to numbers. I'll start by allowing the mother in me to crack my professional facade from time to time. I'll remember that even though my students are near-adults, even at their least lovable, they are each someone's child. And you never know who among them crawled crying into her mother's bed last night...or who just wanted to.