I started my teaching career back in 2008. I was 23 years old and fresh out of college. I had known I wanted to be a teacher ever since I was in the 2nd grade. My 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Sholl, had such an impact on me that by the age of 8 I had already determined I was going to follow in her footsteps. 15 years later I had done just that and was gearing up for my first year of teaching, as a 2nd grade teacher.
Before the school year started, my teammate and I created a curriculum map that would guide our instruction throughout the year. We planned what we’d teach for reading, writing, math, science and social studies. We planned our timeline for when we’d teach it. But, as soon as the school year began, like so many of us experience during our first year of teaching, I became overwhelmed. One of the areas that overwhelmed me most was my feelings of inadequacy in regards to knowing how to best support my students emotionally. I had created a year long guide for academics, yet my student’s emotional needs were so great and I had no plan or knowledge of how to address those needs. Some of my students had faced such troubling circumstances in their first 7 years of life, circumstances I couldn’t fathom living through. Yet they did and they were. I desperately wanted our classroom to be their “safe place”. A place where they could come and learn each day. However, it felt anything but that.
I started reflecting on why I wanted to be a teacher in the first place. I wondered how I’d gone from feeling on top of the world, getting my dream job as a 2nd grade teacher to feelings of inadequacy as if it was all too much for me. Each moment of reflection brought me back to Mrs. Sholl. Her impact on me was so profound that for 15 years I had remained steadfast in fulfilling my goal of becoming a teacher just like her. During my reflection I realized that her impact wasn’t a result of reading, writing or math lessons, although I do have very fond memories of her reading aloud to my class. But rather, her love, kindness, belief in me, and consistency were what impacted me most. One of the greatest lessons she taught me came from her noticing the perfectionist tendencies I struggled with. These tendencies led me to putting a great deal of pressure on myself. During the school year she took the time to help me overcome some of that perfectionism. She helped me learn how to respond in a healthy way to mistakes. She even encouraged me to make mistakes so that I could gain practice in my response, and she was there cheering me on all the way as I learned how to face the pressures I placed on myself in healthier ways. Long before the terms social-emotional learning or character trait education became buzz phrases in schools, she took the time to support her students emotional needs and shape their characters.
The more I reflected, the more my perspective on what I wanted my students to learn shifted. What I realized, was that my plans for reading, writing, math, science, and social studies were important. But, what was equally as important was taking the time to teach lessons that addressed my students social-emotional needs. During that year, the greatest need I saw was teaching my students how to cope with big feelings. As I mentioned, many of my students had experienced, or were currently experiencing trauma. The impact of that trauma was felt in our classroom through, what I will refer to as, outbursts of big feelings. The most frequent big feelings that presented themselves in our classroom were those of anger, frustration, confusion, loss, and sadness. On any given day there would be a chair thrown across the room, a desk tipped, papers or books ripped and tossed, and the list could go on. All were responses that my students had to their big feelings.
I began to find myself entering into those outburst moments with renewed clarity. I wanted to affirm those feelings my students had; they were valid, they were theirs, and they were okay. What wasn’t okay was their responses to their very real and very justified big feelings. I wanted to teach my students healthy ways to cope with what they were feeling, just as Mrs. Sholl had taken the time to do for me. Was it easy to maintain a calm, consistent and level-headed approach to meeting my kids where they were at during an outburst? No. It was so hard. I made mistakes. I was tested daily. Tested to see what it would take to break the calm. Tested to see if I cared enough to remain consistent. Tested to see if I would keep coming back after really hard days.
I remained committed to entering into conversations with my kids about coping with their feelings and I remained committed to seizing the teachable moments after an outburst. I also remained committed to showing my students love. I may never know if any of it had a lasting impact on the 29 children who entered into my life in 2008. But I do know those experiences and conversations and love impacted me and they impact each new group of children who come into my life. For I learned that in order for children to learn and thrive academically, it is my responsibility to create an environment in which they are able to learn and thrive emotionally too. In large part, it is a result of this learning that The Character Tree came to be all these years later.