School has given me a wonderful, wooden desk. It is big and solid, with lots of space to hold my papers. Yesterday, I discovered that for my students, when I sit behind my desk, it is as if I have gone into a sound-proof chamber and drawn the curtains. It is My Space to them, a place where I work on my work. It is not Our Space, where we journey together on this adventure of learning. At times, it is a good place to be, when I want them working independently, reading or writing. At other times, it is the wrong place.
My 6th graders were working on their African Village drawings, the culmination of a study of the Yoruba of West Africa. They had collected details about the village for the last month from readings and images. The girls were all spread out around the room on the floor. While they were drawing, I was reading aloud to them. Without paying any real attention to what I was doing, I went around and sat down at my desk. It seemed to make sense to go there to get out of the way, even though in the past, I had pulled up a chair into the middle of the room. I started reading, giving it my full attention: dramatic pauses, voice changes and vocabulary instruction. But instead of a rapt audience, which was the norm, there was an ongoing, whispering buzz.
My response: to simply keep telling them to be quiet. I put it down to being the week before Break, but after years in the classroom, I should know that an ongoing buzz can mean that a class has lost its sense of direction. Behind the desk did not break my connection with them, but it did break theirs with me. I was no longer present for them, having left our mutual space. They felt it, even if I didn’t.
Looking back on it made me realize that what we bring to our students when we are our most effective is our presence with them. We look them in the eye, and they feel seen. When we step back, consciously or unconsciously, the connection is lost. We know the teachers who “saw” us. We worked and learned from them. Doing that for my students has to be one of my goals for the next year and every year.