In Harper Lee’s book To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus tells Scout, “You never really understand a person …until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Have you ever done that with your students? Have you ever viewed life from their perspective? Whether you teach 22 kindergarteners or 160 seniors, one thing holds true: We don’t know what today’s best looks like for them.
We as teachers are quick to tell students to try harder, pay more attention, or live up to their potential. With students from such varied backgrounds and experiences, can we really know how well or how far that is?
Ashley is my middle child. Before she came to us she had nothing to call her own. When she was in school, surrounded by students who had school supplies, lunch snacks and small toys it was more than her willpower could handle. Did she know stealing was wrong? Yes. Did that matter? Not really. Let’s walk around in her nine-year-old skin for a minute.
Here are the facts:
- I live in a children’s home. I have no parents. Eight-hour shift staff members are raising me.
- No one has ever taught me how to take care of things. The room I share with other girls has bare white walls. I have a dresser drawer that holds all my clothes and a completely empty closet. I do not have one single toy.
- Every time I get something new someone steals it or breaks it.
- I never get to make a decision about what I wear or what I eat. No one ever asks my opinion.
Now, send Ashley to school. Sitting in a third grade classroom surrounded by students who wear new clothes, carry colorful school supplies, and eat fun snack foods at lunch is too much. Jealousy rears its ugly head. Ashley begins taking things. It is wrong. She knows it is, that’s why she is sneaky and backhanded about it. When caught she lies, another indicator she knows it is wrong. But what does it matter? Who is going to care? What does she have to lose? Wow. What a question. The cold, hard truth is no one cares and she has nothing to lose.
Take a minute and let that sink in. Ashley’s stealing makes her defensive. Being defensive makes her mean. Being mean makes her an outcast. Do you have a student like that? Maybe he’s kind of prickly, hard to get the truth out of, and it seems he looks for ways to hurt others. Climb into his skin for a minute. What kind of view does he have? I doubt it’s a high-rise balcony on some exotic island. It’s more likely a dirty, backstreet alley.
What would his best look like? Maybe the best that kid can do today is to not steal. Maybe the best he can do is to not steal more than once. Given the same circumstances, what would your best look like? Some days just showing up will have to be good enough for him. Some days that might be all he can do. Give him a smile anyway. It may be the best part of his day.