Teachers, Lead From The Front.



If I were to ask you to recall your most socially awkward, embarrassing, wavering moments of self-esteem-school year, I can bet I could guess your answer. The let’s-put-it-out-of-our-minds 7th grade year. I remember few things about that year, but the things I do remember were mortifying.  In hindsight, it wasn’t the incidents themselves that was embarrassing, it was more how I interpreted them and felt as though every single eye was judging me. In some ways I didn’t really care if I fit it, I was happy to stick with my few trusty girlfriends, but there were also times I wanted so badly to be a part of the cool crew. The girls who had the hair poof just right and the latest plaid skirt from The Limited. I remember conversations in my head that turned into minutes of constant self-doubt. “Should I say this? Maybe not. Is he looking at me? No. Why would he? I never should have worn this. Will I pass him in the hallway? Why do things look so easy for her? Is she really my friend?” And those are just the snippets I remember. I kept my cool, kept my aqua-netted hair poof high and gold hoop earrings low and got through that year the best I could. I stood in the corner at school dances with my trusty two. I hoped no one would buy me a carnation on Valentines Day during lunch and at the same desperately hoped HE would buy me one! I was a ping-pong ball of conflicting emotion bouncing in and out of the game. 

    Sure, as an adult there are still shades of this. It’s embedded in all of us. It’s good to not be 100% confident, it’s the questioning of self stuff that keeps us humble that keeps us human.  But what if a dose of the empowerment I contain today could have been transferred to the my insecure 7th grade self back then? Just an ounce, just a bit, just enough to be able to confidently share my opinion without the fear of the imaginary cursing glances I was sure I would get from my classmates. 

    I’m sure that in today’s middle school climate the same issues arise, and in some ways to greater extent and on deeper levels. I feel for these kids in all that they are up against, primarily the superficial effect that social media plays in the development and tearing-down of their self-esteem. Snap-chat, Instagram, Facebook…all immediate doors opening into the social aspects of each other’s lives. Finding out that a friend betrayed you, or maybe made a not-so-subtle comment referring to you. On top of the frustrating, emotionally unpredictable, “normal” years of middle school, today’s youth navigate a whole set of constantly changing conventions at their fingertips that likely they can barely mentally digest. 

    This is where your power as a teacher comes in. I know what you’re thinking…she’s going to give me some same-old, cookie-cutter, Oprah-like speech about why we are the most influential people on earth. Why we should be grateful for pathetically low paychecks and instead embrace the fact that we are making a difference in the youth of our future. Nope. I’m not going there. I never will. Truth is, you know all this and you wouldn’t be doing it if you didn’t care. We do things as humans because we care and I’m for certain that some of the most authentically caring people on the earth are teachers of all kinds. And if you’re not a teacher and reading this, find someone to teach! Because you need to feel what it is, why it’s important, and why it’s selfless. 

    Instead, I’m going to take the angle of YOU working on YOU. You're response to self and how this comes across to your students. They look at you on Monday morning and without you even having to say a word, they know. They know how the weekend went. They are little vibrational absorbers and have a keen sense of not only feeling your moods, but especially their  own. They just don’t know yet know how to regulate the disarray, and that’s where the conflict is. And middle school isn’t just disarray, it’s an all out internal tornado. “Actions are caught, not taught”, right? It takes a moment to look at our own children to see how we are doing in this life. I’m an eye-roller—terrible habit—so therefore my kids are eye-rollers. Damage done, I taught them that without even trying. The Italian short-fuse, I’m working on that—ironic I teach mindfulness right? It’s teaching me. What are you outwardly presenting to your students? Do you smile? Do you look past them instead of at them? Do you tune out the noise in your head to hear what they are really telling you? If this stuff feels hard to reflect on, I’m glad for you. It means you’re aware enough and willing enough to study yourself. What’s the trick? The trick is to first take care of YOU! What is your love, your passion, what makes you most happy? Do it, every week in some capacity! Do you need rest? Probably YES . . . so take it!  Do you say yes to everything? I hope not . . . but if so, start saying NO!  It’s empowering and it’s revealing to the “yes” crew that others are capable of taking up the slack. When have you last bought yourself a gift just because?  You see, how you radiate to your students is a reflection of how brightly you radiate in the mirror of self each day.  Self-love informs all other relationships and forward-moving moments in our life. 

         So here walks the disheveled, anxious, typical middle school student on the first day of school who has YOU, amazing you, as their teacher. And clearly they’ve hit the jack-pot because you smile and you connect. That’s all they want. They want to feel loved just as much or even more so than we do as adults. And better yet, they know they deserve love, we lose that sense as we get older.  They realize you smile because you’re happy and they note how you carry yourself. You walk with confidence and are well rested (hopefully). This is because you have first and foremost taken care of the entire you. Not just the you that needs to eat well and exercise somewhat regularly. You recognize the need to do things that make you feel happy and alive. That’s mindfulness!  It’s being still enough and in tune enough to pay attention to what you need as a thinking, feeling, emotional being. Those actions are the best teaching you can give your students. 

    Those 7th grade students know which teachers feel empowered and beautiful. They know so well. And just through representing your awesome, authentic self in their presence, you are unknowingly teaching them how to stand secure in their own awesome self. The social media whirl-wind will continue to be a challenge, but by modeling a strong, head-held-high character you can give them something to aim for and something that will keep them grounded when they are affected by what they see on their smart-phones.

    Think back to some of your favorite teachers? Why were they your  favorite?  Mr. Zafran, a wildly enthusiastic, curly black haired guy whose shirt was always half untucked was a pillar of confidence. He proudly talked about his Yankees, he always smiled, and blasted Beetles music from his classroom after school. He smoked, we all knew that because he told us! He was real with us. He certainly never said smoking was okay, instead he told us it was stupid. So stupid that even he couldn’t kick the habit. “Never start, this is the worst part of who I am” he would say. He pulled us out of our insecure comfort zones. Challenged us to find who we were. I owe it to him for feeling okay to sit in the front row of every event I now attend as an adult. Up until 7th grade, I hid in the back, just like at the dances. He made me sit in the front, told me that I might miss something really important if I sit in the back. What was he really doing? Pulling me out of my shell in the subtlest of ways. He saw the shy, quiet, ever-questioning 12 year old who found safety in solitude. He brought me into the light of a what life could look like in a front row seat. 

So take a front row seat in your own life. Do things you love. Be you, the entire you! Who cares what other people think? They aren’t you!



Sarah Stevenson