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Gifts for Students

I don’t know how everyone else manages the many pieces of holidays with family, but I make lists.  I’ve been working on a too-elaborate meal plan for soon-to-be visiting relatives for almost six weeks now (with separate spaces for each meal and a place to list out the necessary prep to make it all happen).  I like to know what’s coming and be as prepared as is humanly possible.  (If you’re a parent, you can imagine how the addition of a newborn at the holidays might make list-making more crucial and more comical). I also have a list of gifts to purchase or make, and I’m dutifully checking things off.  I’ve been thinking of the relationships that warrant gift-giving, and while family and friends certainly make that list, I also think about my son’s daycare teachers.  These are the people who make my child feel safe, secure, and loved when his family isn’t present.  In the past year, they are people who have cheered him on while he took his first steps, worked to make sense of his first words, helped him understand how to set boundaries with peers (I’ve more than once heard them coaching him to say something like, “Tell him, ‘I don’t like that’”), and tended to his feelings.  As a parent, knowing that I am sending my son to a place where adults see him clearly and are invested in helping him develop into whoever he will be is an incredible gift.  I wish I could give them all raises, but in lieu of that, I’ll spend some time on homemade breads that I know they like. Holidays make me nostalgic for teaching.  If you’re currently teaching, you might think that makes me crazy, but I really love looking for opportunities to connect with kids in new and different ways, and

I’ve found that holidays often create those moments.  And while giving teachers gifts is a fairly regular procedure for families (though obviously different depending on grade level), I didn’t think as much about the kinds of gifts I’d like to give my students.  With the benefit of hindsight (and continued learning about learning), I’d now strive to give my students the following: -Increased agency: If you’ve been reading our blogs in the past month, you know that this topic has come up for me (in having control over my New Year’s Resolution) and Kris (in seeing the work of a teacher-powered school in Minnesota).  Agency is really that important.  I haven’t met a single person who likes being micromanaged or who warms to having an authority figure tell them not only what they must do but exactly how to do it and by when.  Each of us needs the room and the permission to demonstrate what we know and can do.  If we deny those opportunities to our kids, if we ask them all to produce the same thing regardless of their individual differences, we aren’t assessing their proficiency as much as their compliance.  Finding ways to give your students more agency in 2020 will build their competence and allow you to see them more clearly. -Plenty of trust: Did you know that the amount of oxytocin (the happy hormone) increases in your body as you work on a team with high levels of trust?  (Read more about that here!)  Imagine how school could change for kids if we gave them more of it and built collaborative environments that they described in that way.  (And while we’re thinking about it, imagine how school could change if teachers felt deeply trusted by administrators and families).  When we signal to students that we believe they are capable of weighing choices and making real and important decisions, our relationships with them change.  And sometimes, it doesn’t go as we’d hoped.  The good thing about that is it creates an opportunity for reflection.  Building deeply trusting relationships is complicated and careful work, but it opens the door for powerful learning. -More opportunities to use their voice: It should be the responsibility of every adult who knows a child to help them learn how to do this well.  In a democracy, it is an essential skill to be able to articulate your point of view, craft an argument, and consider the flaws in your thinking.  While parents can (and should) try to help their kids do this, they need their teachers (and other folks who can be more objective) to help provide practice opportunities so that they learn how and when to use their voice in service of themselves and others.  And because all people make mistakes, kids will overstep boundaries, they’ll say things that aren’t polite, and they’ll need help understanding that theirs isn’t always the most important voice to hear.  The more opportunities students have to practice using their voice (while getting feedback) the better able they’ll be to communicate with strength, conviction, and deep understanding.  Looking for chances to allow kids to do this will certainly benefit the individual, but it will also impact society. Changing your teaching practice is about so much more than saying “I’m working on trusting my kids more.”  It’s in subtle moves that you make and the way you talk about (and to) kids.  It can be found in the kinds of work you ask your students to do and when you make allowances for individuals.  Teachers themselves need agency, trust, and voice to make thoughtful shifts and consider their progress.  While a winter break isn’t enough time to tackle every move you might want to make (after all, you most certainly need to take a break and recharge), it is a great opportunity to start asking yourself questions and consider alterations to your practice.  Give yourself the gift of being able to make mistakes and see what gifts you’re able to give your students, in return. Image courtesy of


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