Sometimes we are all guilty of expecting far less from our children and students than they are capable of; that’s why it is important to just sit back and be amazed sometimes. When given the opportunity, children will exceed your expectations 9 out of 10 times. Whether it’s a creative project an opportunity for helping those less fortunate or the chance to do the right thing, children have a knack for exceeding our expectations when set up for success.
While preparing for a trip to Nepal, Wendi Pillars was reminded of this valuable lesson. In preparing for her overseas professional development training mission, Wendi was careful not to share her plans with friends, colleagues or students until very near her departure date.In the long run, Wendi’s willingness to finally share her travel plans with her students.
Very few of my students—or even my colleagues—knew about my long-planned three-week trip to Nepal, where I would teach and train teachers. But about a month before the big journey, I decided it was time to share with students what I was planning.
I wanted to learn what questions they had, so that I could take their curiosity (along with notes and postcards) along with me. But they had a lot to teach me before I set off for Nepal.
When I showed students a photo of the school I’d be visiting in rural Bageshwori, Nepal, several were enthralled. They had lots of questions. After learning there was no electricity or running water, and seeing the differences between our physical learning environment and the Nepali students’, two of my girls decided they wanted to help.
By lunchtime, these two students had recruited two more girls to help. They asked if they could collect donations from the 3rd grade classes, and I said yes, they could try. They gathered and decorated small boxes for students to put change in.
Here came the first lesson I learned before my journey:
1) Nurture the best in your students.
I’ve worked in Title I schools for 13 of my 16 years of teaching. I know what kids are capable of and that surprises abound. Yet I still approached this whole project with ideas founded in deficit-model thinking. “They are students who receive free lunch, I can’t ask them to raise money … .” Yet they had the idea and will within themselves. Burning brightly. My support was all they needed.
It made me wonder, “How many other missed chances have there been for me to nurture the best of who my kids are?”
We need to spend as much time trying to strengthen our students’ passions as we do helping them overcome challenges and weaknesses. This necessitates taking time to learn what those passions are.
2) Provide emotional and material support.
A couple days later—emboldened by some success—the students asked if they could go to their former 2nd grade teachers to spread news of the project, and I said yes. But, worried about where this might go, I asked, “Do you know how to explain what you’re doing?” The teachers were unaware of my travel plans, so the entire context would need to be explained. Were the students up to the challenge?
Apparently, they decided they were not yet ready. They made a poster with the picture of the Nepalese school and their fundraising goal. They visited the first classroom, but realized they needed to add a map to the presentation after a teacher questioned them about the location of Nepal.
On and on it went, and I looked on as their initial shyness and hesitation turned into a well-rehearsed plea for donations that spread throughout our school. But it wasn’t just “practice makes perfect.” Their appeals were buoyed by their growing knowledge about Nepal, including Skype sessions with the principal of the Nepalese school (who did not know of their plans).
Sure, I asked questions from time to time. And I helped connect them with the resources to learn more about their project. But all of that was just scaffolding.
Wendi Pillars is a National Board-certified teacher in English-language learning, and a member of the CTQ Collaboratory. She has 16 years of teaching experience, both overseas and stateside. The Nepalese school where Wendi volunteered is now raising funds for a new school building.