Teachers, as another school year begins, let me tell you how much I envy you. Since I will spend the year travelling as North Carolina Teacher of the Year, this will be the first time in 17 years that I will not be welcoming children into my classroom in the fall. Like a man who has left his phone at home and taps his pockets all day, I find myself reflexively putting school supplies in my cart. School for me has been like electricity, a force which I never realized was so necessary in my life. But now, in this blackout, I wander the house flicking the switches, each time surprised by the dark. Like salt, light, water or warmth, school is a force in my life that only now, when I do not have it for the first time since I was 5, do I understand how vital it is in the lives of children.
For many of the children you meet at your door, this first day of school is a return to themselves, to stability, to “normal.” For so many children, life outside of school is chaotic, sometimes violent, and full of need. For those children, your classroom is a place where they are stable and safe, a place where they know they will be provided for and where someone cares about them. School for them, as it has been for me all my life, is “home” in the deepest sense of the word. A teacher may be the one person in a child’s life who greets them everyday with a smile, or who tells them they are talented, intelligent, beautiful. For many of our students it is only a teacher who will see their value, and teach them to value themselves. For some, it is only at school where they know they are welcome.
So, as this new school year begins, I urge you to teach gently. Give a kid a pencil if he needs one, not a lecture on being unprepared. The world is a hard enough place for children. In a letter to his son’s teacher, Abraham Lincoln wrote, “To live in this world will require faith and love and courage. So, World, I wish you would sort of take him by his young hand and teach him the things he will have to know. Teach him — but gently, if you can.” Like so many parents and teachers, Lincoln was keenly aware that this world is often no place for children, that the things our children need to know to survive it are dark and sad and often pessimistic. But in that same letter, Lincoln urges his son’s teacher to, “Teach him that for every scoundrel, there is a hero, that for every crooked politician there is a dedicated leader. Teach him that for every enemy there is a friend.” Lincoln believed that we do not have to steal a bit of innocence for every ounce of experience we give them of our grown-up world.
By teaching gently in a world of numbers and data, metal and machines, we can make our schools a garden of kindness, humanity and hope so that, maybe, they will build a world just a little kinder than the one we built. Teaching gently is hard, it often means putting away our own ego, forgiving when we have every right to punish, being generous even when others take advantage of it. Teaching gently is hard, but we must remember that they are our children. As Lincoln wrote about his own son, ““This is a big order, World, but see what you can do. He’s such a nice little fellow...”