Kyle Schwartz is a third grade teacher at Doull Elementary in Denver, Colorado. Doull Elementary has a strong community and the school faces challenges. At Doull, about 90% of students live below or very near to the poverty line and about half are learning English at school. As a young adult, she worked at the education nonprofit City Year in Washington D.C., where she painted murals, scrubbed off graffiti, and served food to the homeless.
She is the author of the book: I Wish My Teacher Knew.
Below is the full text of her TEDx Talk titled “What kids wish their teachers knew” at TEDxKyoto conference.
One evening, after a long day of teaching eight-year-olds at my Denver elementary school, I found a crumpled orange piece of paper in my kitchen.
And as I unfolded it, I noticed that it was a note that a student had written to me.
And as I read the shaky handwriting, I felt the same twinge of pain as the first time I had read those words.
The note said, “I wish my teacher knew I don’t have pencils at home to do my homework.”
Now that student, she’d written those words to me in response to a lesson I’d been doing in my classroom where I asked students a question and I invited them to respond.
But I’ve been doing this for years in my classroom and never told anyone. But this time, when I saw those words, I saw something worth sharing.
And I took a picture of the note, and I put it on my new Twitter account, and I hoped that other educators would ask their students the same beautifully simple question: “What do you wish your teacher knew?”
Now, right away, teachers saw the note, and they asked their students, and then more teachers saw it, and more people asked their students, and as it went viral, it transformed. It became much bigger than just sharing a simple lesson in my classroom.
My students’ voices were amplified, and they became powerful advocates for their community. And in this way, we swapped our traditional roles, and my students became the ones with something to teach – that is, if we are willing to listen.
You see, in the five years that I’ve done this lesson with students, the students in my classroom have come and gone, but I’ve noticed three distinct lessons that they’ve taught me.
And as we look at notes from my students and other students, I hope you learn those same three lessons. The lesson of connection, the lesson of complexity, and the lesson of reflection.
Now, first of all, students really wish we knew just how deeply they crave connection. Like this note that says, “I wish my teacher knew I love my family.”
You see, no matter where you are in the world, your family is always your first and your most important teacher. And our schools can harness the power of this by creating strong partnerships between our families and our schools.
And then there’s this note that says, “I wish my teacher knew I want to learn more about history.” You see, we all have curiosities. Isn’t that why you are here today? We are more productive and fulfilled when we follow them.
That’s why I view it as my role as a teacher to recognize and cultivate my students’ passions, and connect what we’re doing in school to what they actually care about.
Well, this next note, we can all too easily relate to. It says, “I wish my teacher knew I don’t have a friend to play with me.”
You see, those words, they touch a special place in our hearts because we all know what loneliness feels like. And the truth is, what we value most – more than wealth, more than success – is connection.
And if we agree on that, then shouldn’t the priorities of school include helping students build and maintain relationships? Because a student that’s connected is a student that can learn.
Well, those notes, they share with us the universal joys and growing pains of childhood, but there’s another lesson.
You see, our students really wish you knew just how complex their lives are. You see, there are students who are struggling with things just as real and complicated as we adults are.
This note says, “I wish my teacher knew that my dad died this year, and I feel more alone and disconnected from my peers than ever before.”
There’s this note that says, “I wish my teacher knew, my mom might get diagnosed with cancer this week, and I’ve been without a home three times this year alone.”
Imagine. These kids sitting in our classroom, their heads are full with ideas much more complicated than solving a math problem. And maybe, maybe you’ve been that kid before.
Maybe there’s been a moment in your life where your world overshadowed the day’s lesson. Yes, we all have difficult times, but when children do, it affects their learning and their development.
And as much as we wish we could, we can’t prevent every tragedy in a child’s life, but we can make our schools soft places to land, places where kids feel safe and cared about and valued.
And that happens when our students, they know that they can bring in their celebrations, their questions, and their concerns.
It happened in my class in the middle of a reading lesson when a little girl raised her hand and as earnestly as she could, she said, “Can cancer kill you? Because my grandma has cancer, and I want to know if she is going to die.”
See, when I heard those words, I stopped everything, but that doesn’t mean I stopped teaching. I took the time to listen to her, and I answered her questions as directly and as honestly as I could.
And there was a powerful lesson that day when she realized her whole class would be there for her no matter what. Because in a complex world, compassion and empathy are powerful teachers.
Well, there’s a third lesson, and that’s the lesson of reflection You see, children have the remarkable ability to reflect the truth about our society, and in doing so, they can make our world a better place.
There’s this note that says, “I wish my teacher knew that my family and I live in a shelter.”
And this one says, “I wish my teacher knew how much I miss my dad because he got deported to Mexico when I was three years old, and I haven’t seen him in six years.”
This note says, “I wish my teacher knew I’m not going to college, because I cannot afford it.”
You see, when social and political issues, like housing insecurity, like broken immigration systems, and access to education, when those come in the form of a statistic or a political-attack ad, most of us can remain comfortably disconnected.
But in seeing those words, suddenly, those complex issues, they become painfully personal because we view them through a child’s lived experience.
Which means it’s our job to invite the voices of our most innocent and our most vulnerable because they can really show us how to improve our society.
And if we’re listening to them, if we’re listening, our children can tell us exactly how they are impacted by the decisions that we adults make. They can remind us that when we fail to solve societal issues, it is our children who pay the price.
And I know from my own classroom, the cost of those failures is often paid for with a child’s education.
You see, these notes, they demand that we acknowledge and challenge the inequitable systems that threaten to overshadow our students’ assets and talents. Because a community that is reflective is powerful.
You see, on one level, these notes they can help a teacher, like myself, better understand the realities that their students are going through.
But on whole other level, these notes can be a powerful tool in teaching us just how essential community is in education.
You see, as a teacher, I know my role is to build community. The work of teaching is relationship building because we are not teaching subjects, we are teaching students. And the great news is we don’t have to choose.
We don’t have to choose between academics and social development. We don’t have to choose between achievement and human connection.
The beautiful truth is that each are deeply dependent on each other. And we can honor this duality by creating relationship-centered classrooms where we stop thinking of developing a child’s character as a nice complement to the academic goals of school, and we start — we start thinking of developing the whole child – emotionally, socially, intellectually – as the requirement for learning.
We can do that by giving our students our unrelenting empathy and our indestructible faith.
So, let us view our students with a new lens. Let us see our schools in a new light. Because the goal of education is not merely the passing on of knowledge.
The goal of education is the holistic development of each of our students. And that, that is what our students really wish we knew.