A few weeks ago, as a part of my never-ending quest to better organize my home, I ended up stumbling upon a box tucked away in the back of a closet. In it, I was thrilled (and also slightly horrified at some moments) to discover in it numerous letters and mementos from middle and high school. I found, among other things, a plethora of notes passed back and forth between me and a friend in 7th-grade Geography (sorry, Mrs. Dower!), a play written in 9th grade by a friend who now produces television shows, and every piece of correspondence sent to me by the boy on whom I had a MASSIVE crush my sophomore year in high school (yikes!).
Although I had forgotten that the box itself existed, all of the things I pulled out of the box I remembered, save for an item found at the very bottom. It was a short paper I had written for my Modern World Drama English class in my senior year. We had a one-to-two-page writing assignment due every Friday, and I had struggled all fall to find my “voice,” as my teacher put it, in this short format that would make up a very significant part of my grade in the course. I adored this teacher and loved how his course challenged me to think deeply in ways I never had before, and I was frustrated to not be performing better on my assignments.
On the paper I saved, my teacher made all of the usual corrections a teacher should, adding a missing comma here and asking for clarification there, but his short comment at the end is what made me hold on to the paper. He wrote that the “very good beginning” of my paper “led [him] to a passionate response,” and that my “very effective” writing had “energy.” These comments weren’t particularly long or necessarily seeping with praise, but they were the comments I had been hoping for since the very first assignment of the year. I was thrilled to earn my first A on one of his writing assignments and was so proud to have finally found the “energy” that my writing had been lacking in the first weeks of school. I felt valued, and my hard work felt valued as well. I doubt that my teacher thought to himself as he graded my paper that he was providing the type of commentary that a student saves for 22 years. But his words gave me exactly the encouragement I needed, and my grades on the weekly papers remained high for the rest of the year.
My closet cleanout facilitated an archeological life dig perfectly timed with the start of another school year. It was an important reminder that we never know what will resonate with a student and that we as educators should never underestimate the impact of our words and actions. Not everything we write to a student will end up painstakingly saved in a box to be re-read later, but we have the ability to make a student beam with pride with our praise, to turn a bad day into a good one with our acknowledgment, and to make a young person feel seen and understood.
When students feel seen, they feel powerful, and they use that power to do all sorts of amazing things. I feel lucky to be returning to work with a community of educators who know how important their roles are and who know that students, young women in particular, do better academically when they are connected to adults who they know support and affirm them. We ask our students to tackle intellectually vigorous ideas and to meet high academic standards each and every day, and we support and encourage them while they reach and exceed our expectations.
I love the idea that 20 years from now, or perhaps even longer, a former student of mine could open a box — or a digital file, I suppose — to reveal some words of encouragement or praise that will make them smile as broadly in that moment as they did decades prior. It might be too much to hope for, a student pouring over my corrections or comments as a grown adult, so I will happily settle for the idea that every day, in a simple, single moment, I have the power to make my students feel accomplished, unstoppable, and full of potential.
So, at the start of another school year, here’s to making every student interaction, written or otherwise, count this year. Here’s to Dana Hall School and to educators who embrace the power of their words and actions and who transfer that power to their students.