“Mom, come watch this video that’s going viral,” my daughter said. I watched the video of Chris Ulmer, an enthusiastic teacher, speaking directly to each student in his class. He had the youthful energy of a teacher still fresh with the notion that teachers can change lives.
“You are funny.” “You are an amazing student,” he said with an honesty that made me smile. Some students stood awkwardly pretending not to care but secretly soaking up each word. “You’re a great soccer player.” “You’ve been doing a great job reading.” Some students nodded and spoke in affirmation for of course they were all those things and more. “You make everyone laugh.” “I love having you in my class.”
Wow, I thought, what child or adult wouldn’t love to start each day being seen for the good they bring? I was curious to try this in my own preschool classroom.
Usually at the end of circle time we wash our hands for snack. I’ve learned that releasing a herd of preschoolers to wait in line to wash their hands is a recipe for TROUBLE. Instead I dismiss them a few at a time with such phrases as, “I spy someone with a rainbow on their shirt,” or “I spy someone who read the book about dinosaurs today.” Sometimes I throw in trickier questions like, “I spy someone who spells their name L-E-V-I,” and “Who has a name that rhymes with Boliva?”
Today I was excited to try speaking praise directly to each child. One at a time I called their name to come stand beside me so we could be close to each other.
“Sophie, I like the way you come to school with a smile on your face each day. You always try to do your best work.”
“Matt, you sure are a super cleaner upper at clean up time. You always bring your good listening ears to school.”
“Jaylen, you have the best laugh. Hearing you laugh makes me smile every time.”
“Taylor, you tried and tried until you figured out how to do the monkey bars all by yourself. I like that you never gave up.”
“Alex, you let everyone have a turn to make goals when you play soccer. You really know how to be a good friend.”
And then it was Trent’s turn. As I called his name my mind went blank. What was I going to say to him? For Trent usually left his good listening ears at home. Trent did not help clean up even when asked the second or third time. In fact Trent often had melt downs while wailing, “I’m not done yet!” Often to the chagrin of those sitting next to him Trent’s hands, legs and feet spilled over onto them like unwanted tentacles. Although Trent sought out friends to play with, it often came across as too much, too loud and too rough. During academic time Trent would angrily crumple up his paper and throw it to the ground if his work did not look the way he wanted it to. Swirling in his own disappointment he could not hear my calm reminders that trying our best is good enough.
But as he stood excitedly in front of me, eager that it was finally his turn. I remembered how Trent always noticed when another child was sad. He’d quietly ask them why they were upset. His arms ready to envelope them in a hug. He feels things deeply. His intense frustration when his work doesn’t measure up is because he needs to go beyond his best. Clean up time can be excruciating for him when he is intently focused on an activity. The countless stories he wants to share make it almost impossible for him to sit quietly at circle time. He wants to connect with others so badly even though his “bull in the china shop” approach often leads to misunderstandings.
How might it feel to have such powerful feelings inside a four year old body? How might these same traits of empathy, focus, high standards, need for connection, stubbornness and imagination serve him as he gets older?
And then I knew what I wanted to say and I meant every word.
“Trent, you notice when your friends are sad and you give them hugs to help them feel better. I noticed you worked and worked on that tricky puzzle this morning until you finally figured out how the pieces fit together. You were trying really hard to keep your hands in your own space at circle time today. Trent, I really love being your teacher.”
His face lit up and he wrapped his arms around me before galloping off to join the line of kids waiting to wash their hands.
Even though, Chris Ulmer was teaching special education students in Florida and I, on the opposite coast in Washington, was teaching preschoolers we shared a common value. It didn’t matter that he was young and handsome and I was middle-aged and reliant on my bifocals for we both understood that how students feel while they are in our classrooms is more important than what we teach.
No one can learn if they feel dumb, worthless, lazy, bad or unlovable. Our job as teachers is to first leave no doubt in a student’s mind that they are worthy, smart, creative, unique, valuable and loved. Then and only then can learning happen.
More about Chris Ulmer and Special Books by Special Kids
The teacher that inspired this story is Chris Ulmer. Chris was a Special Needs teacher in Florida who has taken his passion far beyond the walls of his classroom. If you want to be inspired, definitely learn more about him.
To see the wonderful work Chris he is doing visit http://www.specialbooksbyspecialkids.org/
Follow him on Instagram @specialbooksbyspecialkids