Monday, August 15, 2016

Resolve To See

For the next couple of weeks, as the beginning of my school year approaches. I'm going to write to renew my resolve to keep focus in my practice. This is one of that series of posts.

I'm not sure that anybody has it harder in school than the invisible kids.

Bullied students are a subset of the invisible students. Bullied students are seen-but-not-really. They are seen for the one characteristic for which they are singled out and mistreated, but rarely seen as actual complete fully human beings.

There are also the students who are completely invisible. Unseen, unknown, just passing through the halls of the school. Their presence and their absence make the same impression on the people around them.

There's a sad but fair argument to be made that all of this invisibility is practice for the adult version, for entering the grown-up world where we talk past or at each other and simply reduce other people to just one or two characteristics, treating our fellow humans as if they are cartoon versions of human beings. We reduce the people we disagree with to gnarled caricatures. We reduce the people we don't mind being around to flat masks, one or two simple characteristics that we can quickly reference before we move on. And we reduce people that we don't want to bother with to nothing at all. Not even ignored, because you can only ignore something that you acknowledge is there. Just invisible.

I suspect it's easier for us to slip into that mode in school because we deal with a relatively narrow slice of humanity. I teach teenagers, and while there are some things that have changed over the decades, teenagers remain for the most part pretty teenagery. On top of that, certain physical and personality types recur over the decades. It's not hard to slip into a state of just reacting to a student as That Kid Again.

But boy, do they want to be seen. I mean, really seen. They love it when someone sees who they are, what their strengths are, what their fears are, what they really have going on. And it is a tricky game because one thing about teenagers is that great old deep-seated Bruce Banner-esque fear-- "If anyone knew what I was really like-- I mean, really like-- they would all avoid me like the plague."

You're not always going to see right down to the depths of every student's soul, and that, I am quite certain, is a Really Good Thing for many reasons. But I can be sure to see every kid, every day, even if it's for jst a second.

I can stride through the halls on some Critical Mission (like copies or fetching connecting cables) and breeze right past a hundred students with my head down and not a sound. Or I can take the second to make eye contact, smile, say hi or good morning or glad you're here today or just some quick joke-- and all I'm really saying is "I see you."

I think this is the power of those teachers who stand at their classroom door and greet every student (I admire those teachers, but I am not that organized). It guarantees every student that he or she will be seen.

I mean, just imagine how miserable it would be to getup in the morning and  know that you are going to a place where not a single person will see you, not a single person would notice if you weren't there. How soulcrushing must that be. And as teachers, we absolutely have the power to change that.

If we pay attention, we can see who our students are. We can see what they're proud of, what they value, what their quirks and style and sense of humor are about. And once we really see them, we can meet them, and let them know they are valued. And the beauty of it is that it doesn't really take more time than just brushing by. "Good morning" isn't any easier to say than "Hey! That hair looks better pink than blue," but the latter lets the student know they've actually been seen, that their presence on the planet actually made a difference, however small, to someone.

And I'm not talking about anything intrusive. Everybody knows That Person-- the one who tries to pretend to say "I see you," but who is really saying, "Look at me!" Teachers should not be That Person. Students are not there to meet our emotional needs.

But it is easy to sleepwalk through large chunks of life without paying attention. It's easy, but it's not desirable, and it is a particularly bad idea for us as teachers. For some of our students, we may be the only human being who actually sees them today. That's an easy gift for us to give them. Pay attention. See. Life is so much more interesting when you are awake for it, and yes-- that means that not only are you giving students the gift of being seen, but you are modeling for them how to live a life less boring.

Which is why I hammer this into my brain every year. It may be less of an issue for you elementary types-- your kids are high on life and excited about everything. But my teens will, in a just a couple of weeks, begin the process of trying to suck all the energy and color out of the world. That's okay. They are who they are. And I've learned that if I actually open my eyes, look at them, see them for the full rich human beings they are, it turns out they're pretty great.


  1. Thank you Peter for stating so eloquently something I've tried to do every day since I began teaching. It makes such a difference in those kids lives...the ones who are invisible and it's something so easy for us teachers to do, so long as we decide to do it consistently.

  2. There is nothing more fundamental to teaching than "seeing" students. It requires humility, patience and time. Should students consider it a luxury to be seen? Is it an act of generosity on our part as teachers? If we hope to foster the development of a more sincere, considerate and secure society, we need to consider the weight our action or inaction when it comes to seeing students. Spending years in an environment where you feel invisible is a punishment no one, absolutely no one deserves.