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By Blaine Mandin, teacher, Surrey

It is the middle of August. You are excited about your new class and the start of another year. You begin to have the usual nightmares about being late on the first day or showing up in your underwear. You wake up on that first Tuesday after a night of fitful sleep, put on your “back to school clothes,” and think about all the things you want to accomplish. After 10 minutes with your new students you witness kids rolling on the ground, hiding under tables, poking and punching each other, and talking non-stop after several requests to be quiet. You quickly realize it is going to be one of those years. You wonder if you can make it. 

I had one of these challenging classes a few years ago and often went home exhausted. Even with almost 30 years of teaching experience, I wondered if I was up to the task, but quickly realized that the best thing I could do for many of my students was give them a safe, secure, and loving place to be for six hours a day. 

There was one boy in particular. We will call him Luke. You know the one! Angry. Sullen. Pushing the limits to see what he can get away with. Mean with his words. Trying to push you away, lashing out before he gets hurt and is rejected like he has been so many times before. We also saw glimpses of the bright, funny, and sensitive boy behind the mask. At first, we rarely saw him, but we knew he was in there begging for someone to believe in him, to love him. Instead of getting into a power struggle or getting angry, we simply tried to love and accept him unconditionally. It was hard at times. We still set boundaries and let him know that there would be consequences when he stepped over the line, but that we still loved him.

Evan Leek, one of BC’s amazing and indispensable educational assistants, was assigned to my class in late fall and connected instantly with Luke. The curriculum became secondary because we realized that what this boy needed most had nothing to do with whether he could convert fractions or knew the name of Canada’s first Prime Minister. We started to notice a big difference in Luke’s behaviour just after spring break. He was smiling and laughing more, getting work done, and sharing ideas during class discussions. The boy behind the mask even started to call out other kids for behaviour he had been exhibiting earlier in the year. The child we knew in September became a distant memory.

Evan then overheard something I hope everyone who works in education gets to hear at least once in their career. 

Another boy in the class said, “This school hasn’t taught me anything. I haven’t learned one thing this year.” 

Luke responded, “Yeah, well, because of this school and this class, I learned how to be happy.”

Luke’s response still gives me goosebumps even as I write this.

No child wakes up in the morning wanting to get into trouble, frustrate their teachers, or not understand the latest math concept. I have learned that we need to look beyond the behaviour to see the child behind the mask. What is really going on? Who are they? What is the most important thing this child needs to learn? Years from now your students are not going to remember that amazing science experiment or the math lesson when you were firing on all cylinders. They are going to remember how you made them feel. They are going to remember how you inspired them to love reading, or fitness, or music, or learning in general. They are going to remember how you dressed up in the weird costume on Halloween, or sang that silly song at an assembly, or how you remembered their birthday and let them sit in your teacher chair. Or, maybe they will remember you for helping them realize that they can safely be themselves and that happiness is a possibility.

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