As experienced educators, we often forget the trials and tribulations of childhood, even as we help students navigate them every day. It’s important that we remind ourselves of our past challenges to better understand what our students need. I find myself reflecting on what it was like to be a student as I prepare for my new role of Middle School Director. Here are four memories that spur me on.  

  1. Ms. Marsico

I remember coming home from school in kindergarten and asking my mom if my teacher, Ms. Marsico, knew my name. I don’t remember her answer, but I remember feeling uneasy at school. I was jealous of the students to whom she showed affection, and I was embarrassed when I asked questions in class. I assume Ms. Marsico did know my name, given that I was the third “Feder sister” to enroll in this small independent school in Los Angeles — and my mom was the room parent for the kindergarten class.

As an adult, I’ve thought about what Ms. Marsico might have done to make me feel this way. Was she burned out? Was I too shy? I’ll never shake the feeling I had, and I don’t want to. I use it to remind myself to check in with each student, regardless of their disposition or identity. 

We talk about making sure students are “seen” in their classrooms, but what does it mean to truly be “seen” by a teacher and by the curriculum? I think teachers must prioritize their relationships with students and find ways to make each one feel welcomed and loved.

  1. My ponytail

From kindergarten until the last day of sixth grade, I wore my hair in a snug ponytail. I liked the ease and the organization, all of my baby hairs clipped back with brown bobby pins that were camouflaged in my hair. I have that wavy Jewish hair that people don’t understand (not really curly, but definitely not straight) and I liked the feel of it in a ponytail. My grandmother constantly told me my hair would fall out if I kept it back so tight, and my sisters joked that I had a “fivehead” because my forehead extended longer than the width of four fingers. But I didn’t depart from the look.

Kids are told how to behave, where to go, and what to do. Peculiar preferences such as how they wear their hair often show how they feel. Hair is also an expression of culture, identity, and individuality. I like to think that my tight ponytail was my way of fighting beauty standards. I didn’t care what people told me — I wanted to define what made me feel beautiful. With the pressures of social media, students are dealing with much more than their critical grandmother and annoying big sisters. Kids need to find ways to experiment with their looks and express themselves uniquely. As leaders, we must model openness, kindness, and acceptance. We must challenge our preconceived notions of the people around us. Physical appearance isn’t something we have control over, so we must make space for children to bring their whole selves to school every day. 

  1. Bagel Bites

When I got home from school each day, I immediately opened the freezer and popped three mini Bagel Bites into the toaster oven. It was the treat I looked forward to most, my respite from the day. This ritual was essential to my weekly routine. It gave me time to reflect and take a break from the social and academic demands of being a student. I sat on the kitchen counter analyzing the tiny cheese cubes that covered the small bagel, savoring the moment of peace. 

Students and faculty are burned out, especially after two-plus years of remote, hybrid, and in-person learning in a pandemic. But no matter the year, being a teacher or student in school can be exhausting. Students feel overscheduled and overwhelmed, while faculty feel overstretched and underappreciated. I certainly won’t argue that pizza bagels will treat mental health, but we need to start thinking outside the box, much like my childhood self. 

How do we build in small moments of grace for community members? How do we help them afford high-quality therapy? As we prioritize radical self-care, let’s value it in our benefits packages and salary breakdowns. Individual strategies for self-care aren’t one-size-fits-all. Adults need to give kids space to test out what works for them without judgment.

  1. A.I.M.

Seated at my desktop computer, I logged on to AOL instant messenger (AIM), waited for the dial-up, and wiggled my fingers above the keyboard. I worked on my away message, letting everyone know that if it was Tuesday, I’d be back from dance class in an hour. I messaged my friends and people I had a crush on, chatting about the day, complaining about homework, and making plans for the weekend. No matter how meaningless the conversations were, getting on AIM often felt like the most important part of my day. 

As educators, we often get frustrated when students are distracted in class, rely on their screens, or seem to be uninterested in their schoolwork. Adults tend to forget that in a teenager’s world, the social pressures of school often seem most important. It’s hard to explain to an adult; I remember thinking they just don’t understand. As we get further away from the rush of someone you “like” messaging you back, we lose a sense of what often matters most to some students. We can help them build better habits than we had, but we can also give them grace and recognize the very real social stressors in their lives. 

Adults tend to be limited by our mental models. And we often get caught in the weeds of rigor and content. While holding our rulebook and research-based approaches close, we need to remind ourselves what it was like to be a kid. We need to remember what it was like to feel forgotten, to experience the stressors that crowded our minds — and then to discover our own beauty and find moments of meditation each day.