Last week was Open House at my kids’ schools. To be honest, I didn’t want to go. As an introvert in an extrovert’s job, I use all my social battery at work and, most evenings, just want to binge-watch a show or settle in with a good novel.
The last two years offered virtual open houses, where I could follow my kids’ schedules online and “meet” their teachers while lounging on my bed, pajamas on, makeup off, no microphone, no camera, no effort. “Any questions?” the teachers would ask into the void. “Nope,” I would say into my empty room. “Mr Crowell seems awesome!” I would yell to my son in the next room. “He is!” my son would yell back.
This year, though, with a heart-void since my daughter went to college, I decided I would go to both open houses, two schools on two subsequent nights. I went through the Chick-fil-A drive-through, dropped dinner at home, and headed to the school.
My kids go to big public schools with impressive diversity and, I think, a place for everybody. There are over 1500 kids at the middle school and over 3000 kids at the high school. I walked in with a screenshot of my son’s schedule, 10 minutes to spend in each of his classes over a two-hour period, the sound of the school bell moving parents along.
I started in a classroom called “Enrichment,” which is new at the middle school and which my son has first period of the day. In this class, they are using a curriculum that you can see at www.rethinkSEL.com, focused on social and emotional learning.
When I sat down and saw my son’s work, I vaguely remembered an email from the principal before school started, the gist of which was that they had noticed kids struggling with mental health during the pandemic and were making this class required for 6th and 7th graders this year.
In my son’s folder, there were pages of his work from the first four weeks of school. On the edge of each page was “How do you feel today?” with 10 different faces from which to choose: tired, disappointed, sad, worried/anxious, annoyed/frustrated, mad/angry, calm/content, happy, silly/energetic, or something else. Then there were daily lessons — about empathy, about how to gauge your own feelings, about how to be a friend, and so on.
One assignment I saw in the classroom read “Write about a feeling you would like to ignore and a strategy that can help you manage that emotion.” The child had answered, “I’d like to stop being angry. Breathing can help.”
After my own exhausting day talking to kids about their physical and mental health in the pediatric office, here I was sitting at a middle school desk, seeing how teachers are helping these 11- to 13-year-olds identify and manage their emotional health. I was deeply touched by these kids learning such important life skills. Then the bell rang and ushered me out into the hall.
I went to seven classes at the high school and eight classes at the middle school. I had 15 teachers stand in front of me, from 6:00 to 8:00 pm after a long work day, taking time away from their families to introduce themselves to us parents. I saw the extremely organized, tough Biology teacher in her lab and the boho-chic Creative Writing teacher with twinkle lights in her classroom.
I saw P.E. teachers begging parents to label their kids’ gym clothes and World History teachers excited about the content of their class. The English teacher told us about the students’ reactions to Catcher in the Rye. I saw teacher after teacher showing up for these kids, committed to their work and planting invaluable seeds for the next generation.
The last teacher of my open house journey was also a history teacher. He told us matter-of-factly that our kids would be learning about history in his classroom. He said they would be hearing hard truths and ugly truths about humanity and history, but that he would teach them the facts and how to process what they learned together.
I actually got tears of appreciation in my eyes for the kids and the teachers. I was and am so grateful for these educators who have been through hell in the last few years and are still manning their posts. I trust them to teach my kids all the impossible-to-grasp, mind-broadening lessons they have to give.
I’m glad my child starts the day with “how do you feel?” and then proceeds with his lessons. Naming and identifying how our kids feel in general – and also how they feel about what they’re learning – is so very important. We should all start the day with “how do I feel?” Then maybe our insecurities wouldn’t come out as aggressiveness, or our fear as anger, or our jealousy as hatred.
As parents, we have worked hard to foster open communication with our kids. No question or topic is off limits, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. Especially with the internet at their fingertips, my children are going to see and hear things about which they have questions or need guidance. I’m grateful they are learning to handle life and all its lessons, not just from what their dad and I have taught them, but from what their teachers have taught them, too.
Thank you to all the educators out there. I know you’re being asked to also be emotional support animals and social workers and counselors and security guards. I know you take a lot of crap from some kids, and from some parents, too. I really appreciate your dedication to the care of the next generation.