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The importance of a teacher’s positivity; a thread.

Over the weekend I encountered an ex student. I’m not normally good at bumping in to those I’ve previously taught; I panic I won’t remember their name or, worse still, anything about them at all & it’ll be dreadfully awkward.
Besides, after the first year or so- when a few perhaps pop back to school during breaks from uni- they tend to slip away, into the unknown. It’s hard to keep up with those who stand out in memory, much less with those quieter souls who demand far less of your time or attention.
So I suppose I always feel a slight horror at an only vaguely familiar face approaching me with a smile while addressing me by name, much as happened this Saturday. After some general platitudes (during which I thankfully remembered who she was) we went in different directions.
I remembered that as a student she had joined me in a sixth form class in a previous school. She had only stayed there a year, dropping out before the course finished, so I was pleased that she had told me that years later she was about to start a course at university in Sept.
As I sat for a while, berating myself for my usual awkwardness around former students, she reapproached me, asking if she could talk to me. Sure, No problem.
She wanted to thank me, she said, for the positivity I’d shown her while she was in my class.
Completely unbeknownst to anyone, she had been going through a particularly difficult time in her life at home when she joined the school. She wanted to say how grateful she was for the kindness I’d shown her & how attentive I’d been towards her when she had been quiet in class.
Horrendously, she went on to say she had felt near suicidal during that spell and that my lessons were one of the few reasons she hadn’t given up, that the little bit of care and positivity I’d offered her in school had made her believe there was a reason to continue.
I was speechless, not only because of the empathy I felt for her, but because I honestly didn’t remember being particularly kind. I’d treated her like I did all of the others in that class; I didn’t know what she was going through or that she needed help.
I’d never even asked.
Now, the point of my writing this isn’t to say what a great teacher I must be as a result, because in fact I’ve been internally recoiling in horror ever since our exchange. This felt far from a positive conversation for me. I felt suddenly burdened by a feeling of responsibility
The truth is, I got lucky. By being kind, I got lucky. How easily I could’ve got it wrong; How easily I might’ve said the wrong thing, been offhand or dismissive towards her- the consequences of which might’ve been beyond the tragic. That’s been eating away at me ever since.
It’s so easy to forget, beneath the weight of our marking, planning, reporting & working late, just how important our roles in the lives of young people can be. For some we are the only adults they have contact with, their only frame of reference for life beyond their peers.
The responsibility of our positions as teachers extends way beyond an observation judgement or a set of results; it’s about the impact we have on the lives of young people. Initiatives like Every Child Matters still count, even if long forgotten in common teaching parlance.
The whole encounter has sat uncomfortably with me as a hugely humbling experience. Young people deserve to have a positive teacher & adult in their lives, despite what we may be going through personally, regardless of how tired we are or how hard we’ve been working.
Though I’ve always tried to behave in much the same way towards my students, I have since remembered that they were the reason I became a teacher.
It’s time to revisit positivity & optimism; it really can make a life changing difference to those in our care.
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