Matters of the Mind and Heart

Matters of the Mind and Heart

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reader's Choice 20th Anniversary Edition

Matters of the Mind and Heart

What the teacher is, is more important than what he teaches.

~Karl Menninger

I looked out at a sea of anxious, expectant faces, thirty to be exact, and wondered if I was up to the test. It was my first day back teaching high school Biology in sixteen years. The classroom was large, filled with equipment: microscopes, test tubes, video projectors and computers. Lab tables served as desks. I had the curriculum, grade book, textbooks, lab supplies, sharpened pencils and plans. I had all the “things” I needed to teach but then there were the faces: thirty this hour, thirty the next hour, thirty the hour after that until 150 would pass through my door every day.

I knew I could teach them Biology. The question was: could I reach them? Could I find a way in a school of 2,000 teenagers to convince each of those faces they were unique, wonderful and worth the effort? I knew teenagers — you have to win their hearts before you can win their minds. I had to find a way to reach into the souls of the students behind those faces and make them believe they were capable. Chicken Soup for the Soul became my gateway.

On Friday of the first week of school I casually sat on the lab table in front of the room and chatted with the students. “Today we are going to take a few minutes to do something apart from Biology that I hope will give us a chance to know each other better,” I began. “Because we spend so much time working hard, I think it’s important that we also spend some time sharing with each other.

“So we are going to start writing what I call Mind Matters, because what you have on your mind matters to me. Every Friday at the beginning of class, I will read you a story from the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Then you’ll have five minutes to write a short note and tell me how you feel about the story or the topic it represents. You don’t have to write about the story. You can tell me about anything else that is on your mind but the story will give you a good place to start.”

The thirty faces watched me skeptically.

“If you write a Mind Matter, sign it, and turn it in, you’ll get one extra credit point. I won’t share what you write with anyone else unless you tell me you plan to harm yourself or that someone has harmed you. I will always read your Mind Matter. I will always write back and then return the Mind Matter to you alone.”

Now the thirty faces looked intrigued.

The school I taught in was located about twenty-five miles outside Washington, D.C. It was a pressure cooker community of upwardly mobile parents and high expectations. At first the students were skeptical about writing Mind Matters. But the concept of taking ten minutes off task, and earning extra credit in addition, was very appealing. It didn’t take them long to warm to the idea.

I always started the year with the story “Follow Your Dream” by Jack Canfield. This story consistently had a huge impact on the students. They were appalled by the idea a teacher would reject a student’s dream outright. Some of them were astounded the student would take an “F” rather than rewrite his paper for the sake of his GPA, while others considered him a hero because he believed in himself and stood up to his teacher. Most were amazed by the twist at the end when the teacher visited the student on his dream ranch years later and apologized for not believing in him.

This story helped mold my relationship with my students in many ways. First it let them know I was interested in their dreams and goals whether or not they involved Biology. Some of my students had a real fear of science so it took the pressure off them thinking they had to love the subject to be successful in my class. Second, it let them know I am a person who thinks it’s okay to challenge an idea if you don’t agree with it. After all, questioning the “known” is the entire basis of scientific inquiry. The story also let them know I felt it was important for them to believe in themselves and for me to believe in them. This helped create a safe and supportive atmosphere in my classroom. Finally, the story let them know everyone makes mistakes, even teachers. Making a mistake isn’t the end of something; it’s the beginning of a deeper understanding.

After reading the story, I would tell the students their assignment was to tell me their dreams. And dream they did! It was as if a dam had burst. As promised, I read every single Mind Matter that was turned in. I wrote comments like “Wow, this is an awesome dream!” or “Can I have your autograph now before you become famous?” or “Will you bring some of your artwork by so I can see it?” Every time, the students were anxious to have their notes returned so they could read my comments. I was humbled by how much they longed for the positive feedback.

Allowing the students to share their dreams in a supportive atmosphere set the stage for the rest of the year. We built a bridge of trust and respect because the story allowed us to begin to know and accept each other as people, not just student and teacher. The story “Follow Your Dream” kept me mindful that words are potent stimuli in a person’s image of themselves. It made me acutely aware of the chance I had to influence a child’s life for the better. As a result I was more generous with my praise and judicious with my corrections. I came to school every day looking for ways to help. I visualized each student as a dream about to happen.

Every Friday a new story was read. Every time the bond and understanding we shared deepened. I read over 50,000 Mind Matters in ten years. The things students wrote about ranged from the mundane, like what they had for breakfast, to the crucial: some were being bullied at school, abused at home or feeling suicidal. Whether the information was humorous or heart-wrenching, it gave them a chance to reach out and me a chance to interact or intervene.

A teacher touches the dreams of thousands of students in the course of a career. What an incredible responsibility! What an awesome opportunity. Comments like the following kept my dream of making a difference alive:

“I really appreciated how hard you worked to make each student feel special and accepted.” Gracy O.

“I thought my parents were giving up on me and I even began to give up on myself, but you wouldn’t let go. I love you.” A

“I’m sorry that this is my last Mind Matters. Your caring, understanding, attitude about the troubles in teenage life helped me immensely. Thank you!” Carrie J.

I trust they learned some Biology along the way as well.

~Liz Graf

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