#SOL15: Day 5, Reflecting Back

Magic moments happen in teaching, and they make our hearts soar.

But, there are moments that can break. Us and our hearts.

Z is struggling. He lies down on the picnic table outside the room. When we’re all inside, he enters saying, “I don’t want to sit there.” He paces. We look for a place. He settles beside N. Then moves. Again and again. Searching for a spot.

Sitting is painful. School doesn’t fit, and the discomfort emanates from his being.

Someone says something about dads. He blurts, “My dad doesn’t come home no more.”


Enter Reading Workshop. Z gets together with his book group they are planning. Z says, “I don’t read at home. I read here, not at home.”

Later, Z paces in the corner, reading his book, Reading and walking, in circles. This is his way.

Lunch happens. Z doesn’t eat. He doesn’t want to. Can’t. He just wants to run. Too soon, recess comes to an end. The class is lined up. Z is on the field.

Enter Writing Workshop. Z rustles through papers. “What paper? I don’t have it. I don’t.” We look and find. I coach. He tries. Off he goes.

In the corner something happens. I hear, “Stop it! Why does she have to do that! Why is she here.” I walk over.

We talk. Z calms.

This thing called school doesn’t make much sense to Z. He asks, “Why do we have to do this?” I try to give him a purpose, a reason. But he doesn’t see it.

Z can read and write, but his heart isn’t in it.  It’s elsewhere.

This breaks my heart. And Z isn’t just one student in my classroom. He is one of many students in many classrooms, who don’t fit. His life, his being is too big for the small classroom and industrial chairs. The expectations don’t make sense in his 10-year old brain.

He faces years of schooling. I worry. What am I doing to help him? What is he learning? What will engage him?

He breaks me from time to time. I get cowardly. I don’t want to feel that pain, that frustration. I don’t want to feel helpless.

I complain to my closest confidant who tells me to count my blessings. He tells me Z needs me. He’s right.  My selfish self is shamed, and my teacher self tries to reconstruct.

Part of that reconstruction has been an study of empathy. To understand it, to embrace it, and to teach it.

In her TED Talk on the power of empathy, Helen Riess discusses her research. She states that we are hard-wired for empathy, and we can learn it.  “We all need to see our specialness reflected back.”

Thanks to Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey and Tara of Two Writing Teachers blog for hosting the Slice of Life March Story Challenge. Read other bloggers slices here.


19 thoughts on “#SOL15: Day 5, Reflecting Back

  1. Z is lucky to have you as a teacher. Our students have live such struggles that we don’t know or understand. Your post is a beautiful reminder to the irrelevance of school to so many students. I’ll mark the TedTalk for later. Thanks, Julieanne.

  2. Yup – Z need you and will push, pull, challenge and engage you every step of the way. He will surely forget your name, but he will never forget your caring nor your empathy. Those kids who push every button and the kids we need the most.

  3. Oh Julieanne, I feel your pain. We have all had children like Z. How fortunate for him that he has finally come to you.
    This is a powerful post. I’ll be back tomorrow to comment more fully and reblog, if you don’t mind my sharing your story. 🙂

  4. Your piece reflected your heartache. Your compassion and love will help. We never know when we plant a seed that may later grow. Stick with it. I’ll be back to watch the Ted talk. You always spread kindness and empathy. I see those words flash across your words.

  5. Kids are like an iceberg, so much of what matters is hidden from our view. How fortunate Z is to have a teacher who looks beyond the physical behaviors, but one who peers into his heart searching for what matters most. You are helping him navigate this tricky world.

  6. I spoke of empathy today too, but in a much less challenging way, Julieanne. I know that Z knows you won’t give up on him, & that in itself is a gift for him, no matter his actions. I wonder if a daily art exercise would help. Does he like to draw? Maybe that would be a calming piece for him? Best wishes to you in this tough area of teaching.

  7. I’m going to save the TED talk for later, but your kindness to Z and your perseverance on his behalf says so much about you as a teacher, Julieanne – those kids are so lucky to have you!

  8. This is a powerful TED talk, Julieanne, and your post is an important reminder of the impact we have on our students’ lives. Even though we sometimes feel our influence can’t overcome everything else in a child’s life, at least we can provide them with one place where they can feel safe and cared for. Z is so lucky that you are his teacher.

  9. Reblogged this on Norah Colvin and commented:
    The themes of emotional intelligence, empathy and compassion have featured frequently on my blog, especially the need for them to be incorporated into classroom practice and taught, particularly through modelling, to children.
    My most recent series of posts about compassion, starting with Who cares anyway? and concluding with Ripples through time, with three more in between, were prompted by the #1000Speak for Compassion Project.
    I thought I was done with that theme for a little while at least, but last night I read a very moving post by Julieanne Harmatz on her blog To Read To Write To Be.
    Julieanne wrote with much emotion and compassion about a child in her class; a child who tears at your heartstrings, (and sometimes makes you want to tear out your hair), a child most teachers will recognise from their practice, a child you wish to be everything to but know that at least if you can be someone who really sees the child within, for a little while, you have done something worthwhile.
    I urge you to read Julieanne’s story, and watch the TEDxtalk by Helen Riess that Julieanne has embedded in her post. Riess explains what empathy means through this acronym:

    Thank you for reading. Please share your thought about any aspect of this post.

  10. Hi Julieanne,
    This story really touches my heart. We have all, or most, had students like Z in our classes. Children that we just want to reach out to, to let them know that we feel their pain and wipe it all away. There are so many restrictions on what we can do and the children are with us for such a short time. But, problematic as it is, most of us do whatever we can, hoping that somehow we will make a connection, find a way to make a positive difference in a life that needs more support than others. Most times we never know the effect of our efforts, and oftentimes the task seems overwhelming; but sometimes we can be the catalyst for change. It may not be immediate and we may never know, but that doesn’t stop us trying. This is theme of my flash fiction stories dealing with Marnie who was a child in a dysfunctional family, but who made it through thanks to the efforts of a caring, compassionate teacher.
    Thank you for sharing Helen Riess’s talk. I really enjoyed it. She has a lot to offer.
    I enjoyed this post so much I have reblogged it here: http://wp.me/p3O5Jj-pA
    Thank you for the inspiration.

  11. Not only are you a blessing to Z, but in many way he is likely a blessing to you. Thank you for sharing this touching slice of your relationship with your student.

  12. Thanks for the TED talk – I too will look at it later but I know this feeling well. I have worked with so many Z’s. He does need you. He needs some one who sees that this is hard for him. Someone who will let him read while walking in circles. Hang in there, listen and know he wants to learn but needs little steps to help him understand this crazy thing we call school. It sounds like you are perfect for him!

  13. Julieanne, I was sent here through Norah Colvin’s blog and am glad she alerted me to this wonderful post. I especially love TED talks and this is a great one! Thank you 🙂

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