Miss+TrunchbullOver the next several weeks, children will enter new classrooms across the country, sporting shiny sneakers sans skid-marks and carrying freshly sharpened pencils and blank notebook paper. And they are perhaps a bit nervous (or a lot nervous) about unearthing the answer to a question they’ve been wondering for weeks: Who did I get this year? Who will stand in front of us every day, and with whom will I spend the next nine months? Is she a Miss Honey or a Miss Trunchbull? Will she encourage me or lock me in the chokey? But whether this teacher is old, new, round, or blue, each has also been wondering something for quite a while: Who did I get this year? And depending on how long they’ve been in the classroom, it could sound more like a What did I get this year?

For teachers, students, and parents alike, going back to school can be wrought with fear, as well as hope. Whether you’re a student or parent hoping for a Miss Honey or a teacher hoping for a Matilda, each of us simply longs for three things: love, belonging, and connection. We want this, and when we don’t feel it, fear and shame creep in; we fear being disconnected from others because of something that we’ve done or failed to do or because of an ideal that we’ve not lived up to and therefore make us unworthy of connection. We are all afraid of not belonging, of not being wanted, of failing to live up to whatever standard we think we’re supposed to, as a parent, as a teacher, as a __________. And so what does this look like for each of us as we survey the landscape of a new school year and our role within it?

For parents, their children get out of the car or pull out of the driveway or let go of their hand, and they frantically wonder: Will they be kind? Will they be liked? Will they reflect the good parts of our home, or the bad? Will the teacher think I’m inept or crazy for letting her wear that? The fear that somehow their choices and habits as parents will not be good enough could crush any parent, or in some cases send them into defensive combat mode. I love Sarah Condon’s piece from Wednesday as she writes from a parent’s perspective about the terrifying fact that back to school means sending your child to be put on “educational display for the whole world to judge.” Killer.

For students, they feel basic fear at not being welcomed. Most lack the cognitive self-awareness to see the shame lying in wait as they struggle with their identity and worth, so either they pick their nose, poke their neighbor, strive for all A’s, audition for a play, or do drugs, all in an attempt to feel as though they belong somewhere, within the framework of some kind of an identity. You couldn’t pay me enough to go back to high school, middle school, or even elementary school. To be 8-years-old again on the playground, hoping for my bejeweled butterfly hair-clips to give me the nod of approval from the cool girls, sounds like pure torture. Students simply need to know that they are welcomed as is, both in the classroom and at home.

tumblr_mbaan7tiyk1qza6muo1_1280For teachers, the first bell rings and the first wave of terror hits. Sometimes nausea, too. I always wonder: Will they be kind to me? Will they trust me? Will their parents question me? Will they like to play (with ideas or blocks, depending on how old we feel that day)? Will they see the beauty in language? Will they think I’m funny? Does my breath smell? Nothing has challenged me more as an individual than knowing that parents twenty years my senior might find me ineffective, uncaring, ruthless, or unqualified. They may not “want” me as their child’s teacher. They may want to disconnect from me. This is my fear every time I open an email from a parent or shake their hands and welcome them into my classroom to discuss their child.

Now let us return to August. The best part about being a teacher is starting over every year. I am gifted a do-over, a chance to be a bit kinder to myself and a bit better at the front of the classroom; another opportunity to develop an awareness of the messages of self-doubt and self-criticism that we all carry around in our heads. Parents, too, get a do-over. They get a new shot at being kinder to themselves, a bit more aware of their shame triggers and a bit more resilient in combating what Brené Brown calls the “gremlins.” But it’s in those moments of connection, those face-to-face meetings and interactions that the real do-overs need to happen. At those parent-teacher conferences or volleyball games or Back to School nights, we must choose to see ourselves in the other. We must modify our tendency to see the other as a competitor, someone to combat against in defense of a child or of an educational philosophy or of ourselves, and we must instead choose to see a fellow pilgrim- someone with the same needs, desires, and shame. As Nelson Mandela might put it, we must adopt a spirit of Ubuntu.

But before we can fully embrace the other as fellow pilgrim, we must know that no matter what parents might say about our lessons or what teachers might say about our daughters’ short skirts, we are already welcomed. Only as we know we’re welcomed do we extend a welcome to others. We do belong. Paul tells us: “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.” So, welcome to Mrs. Newton’s classroom this year! Let us be human together.