Lessons from the Classroom: Delighting and Abiding with Students

During one of our last classes together this year, my eighth period seniors and I played a modified version of the word game Taboo. Senioritis notwithstanding, this crew had dutifully completed every single April assignment I concocted for them, including rigorous daily discussions of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, five written reflections, an eco-therapy conversation, a comprehensive “connect the dots” discussion activity, and a still-in-process final paper. I knew they needed a breather.
“Time for Taboo,” I announced on that second to last Friday afternoon. “We’re all on the same team. Everyone will have a chance to give clues while the rest of us try to guess as many words as we can in 90 seconds. Ready?”
As I began calling out clues, the same students who moments prior were end-of-the-year weary and going through the motions came fully alive. The room filled with laughter, energy, cheering, students on their feet—all of this before the best moment, when my quietest student swept the class record with a clue-giving pizzazz and speed that stunned us all.
As they left class that day, joyful and awake and asking if we could play again the following week, I realized that the same lesson I learned during my first year of teaching more than 30 years ago still holds today: I teach best and my students learn most when I fully delight in them.

Delighting in Them

My husband and I experienced this same epiphany when our now-grown sons were babies. The wisdom we gleaned from reading parenting manuals and from watching our siblings raise children was useful, but the thing that mattered most, we soon discovered, was delighting in them. Deliriously in love with these tiny boys, we clapped, cheered, and sang our way through all the early childhood challenges. On the carpet, in the sandbox, on the swings, in the car, we told endless stories, read thousands of books, and played every kind of toddler game. We loved them with all our might. As a result, those early parenting years––while certainly exhausting––were filled with so much laughter and discovery, that more than 20 years later, they still sparkle with a kind of unmatchable joy.
“The light in the eyes of him whose heart is joyful rejoices the hearts of others, and good news nourishes the bones” (Proverbs). In my own life, I feel the truth of this statement daily. Perhaps it’s because I am 54 years old, or because the world has seemed so off-the-charts crazy the past few years, or because I’ve been shaped by great books and great people; whatever the combination of factors, I feel a deeper responsibility to offer good news and light to others. Nabokov said he knew only two things about life: that it is beautiful and that it is sad, but like Pollyanna (a character who I recently realized has gotten a completely unfair rap when I finally read Eleanor Porter’s book of the same name), I want to keep acknowledging minor chord sadness, while working energetically to mitigate it by celebrating major chord beauty.
Do I fail in this endeavor? All the time. But fortunately, just when I’m sinking under the weight of too much bad news, the everyday life of school buoys me. I hear Linda’s early morning greeting as she wheels the coffee pots up to the faculty room, or Jeanne’s signature laughter streaming from the classroom next to mine. I catch sight of Anita’s or Marni’s or Mylin’s lovely faces as we pass each other in the hallway, or I open my eyes to the hundreds of adorable moments occurring among our students every day. I want to keep delighting in everything around me by turning up my palms to accept and receive the entire mystery.

Abiding with Them

I’ve worked in five different independent schools, and each time I’ve left a school, my students have directly or indirectly reminded me that they are the ones who should leave schools, not teachers. The longer I teach and the more turbulent our world becomes, the more I understand the critical importance of abiding with kids, of being a constant and dependable anchor. While teachers rarely underestimate the importance of predictable routines, I want to keep reminding myself and others that it really matters that we stay fully present with kids and each other.
When John gets here in the mornings, long before most of the other students and faculty arrive, it matters that my colleague Mark and I are already here to greet him. When Akash runs a PR in the 1600 meters or Vanessa breaks the school record in the shot put, it matters that several of their academic teachers are at the track meet to witness these events. When my room starts to smell moldy after a week of heavy rains, it matters that Byron shows up with a fresh-out-the-box HEPA filter. When the school became virtual in the spring of 2020, it mattered that our head of school filmed himself conducting morning assembly, that wonderfully affirming daily huddle, from dozens of creative locations around campus. When our advisees lose a friend or suffer the pain of fracturing family structures, it matters that every adult in the building is here for them. When students take to the stage to perform or debate or give speeches, it matters that 700 people become reverently silent and then deliriously congratulatory.
As I sit down to finish writing this, another mass shooting has just occurred, this time in an elementary school in Texas. In the face of such tragedies, how can delighting in kids or abiding with them make any difference at all? Words on paper and very small activities indeed. But then I remember Theodore Roethke, Mary Oliver, and E.B. White’s fervent reminders that indeed “we end in joy,” and I look at the pictures that Liam, our 23-year-old son, just sent me of the messy and magical end-of-the-year handprints made by the preschool children under his amazing care, and I remember once again that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, just as miniscule and germinative and infinitely powerful as all of these tiny moments of goodness and possibility that are happening right now.
Jill Donovan

Jill Donovan ([email protected]) teaches English at John Burroughs School, St. Louis, MO.