These days it is hard to pick up a magazine or listen to a podcast and not encounter the latest thinking about the oldest trick in the book. Habits. After all, habit formation is the bedrock of cultures that created the training of ancient armies and sustained the rituals of primitive religions. Habits were life sustaining and soul sustaining. They still are.
Habits are age old. I often tell my students that they were born in the 21st century, I was born in the middle of the 20th century and my third grade teacher was born at the end of the 19th century. We are part of the long chain of history. Third graders are the same, but the world is very different. When I was in the third grade if we had “good habits,” it meant that we were neat and clean in freshly pressed clothes and had nice manners. Those are certainly good habits, but there is a difference between habits of presentation, and habits of agency. Both are important, but I am keenly interested in habits of agency: habits that help third graders to feel and be more independent and purposeful. Rilke asks us to live the questions. One of the most powerful questions I have lived as a teacher is, “Which habits will support my students as critical thinkers, reflective readers, and creative problem solvers?” There is no answer key for that one. It is a question that stands firm and seeks new answers.
Habits may be nothing new, but the world we live in is. Habits around cell phone use, email, video games, super-sized fast food, drive-thrus, social media, and streaming mark the difference between living creative lives of self-control and living lives where technology, uncontrolled, encroaches upon our schools, homes, and lives like the desertification of arable land.
There are two kinds of classroom cultures. There is the culture that is intentionally built and supported by routines, habits, humor, and mutual respect. And there is the culture that is built by mistake– a culture of heavy top-down control and shame based-practice that keep those terrible twin wolves, Fear and Chaos, clawing at the door. No one chooses that. Not the teacher and not the children. The intentional classroom is the fiercely conscious and loving classroom. This is where the agency of the teacher comes in. Love can’t be mandated. It is a fiercely conscious choice.
I’ve had a ringside seat for 40 years. The world is a more unpredictable place than it was when I started teaching, but it is no less beautiful. Over the years I have become more intentional about creating a safe space with my students in the light- filled corner room on the second floor of Fox where we can uncover the beauty of the world together. Years ago, the piano and easel were taken out of my classroom to make room for computers. I worried. I had to learn how to let go of the piano and the easel and still intentionally create and preserve space for music and art in my classroom. I want creativity to be a habit in the lives of my students.
I teach cheerfulness and happiness as habits. I love a good fresh start and teach my children that each day is a new beginning. I believe that walking across the threshold of a classroom door should always be an act of hope. In Room 204, alongside my students, I have worked to cultivate the habits I teach over time. One of the most important habits is to “Look at the world with the eyes of a writer.” I don’t want my students to miss a minute of their unfolding stories.
Each child I have taught has been part of my unfolding story as a teacher. Forty years ago I wanted to make a difference in the world by making a difference in the lives of children. My students have made a difference in me.
This is my last year as a classroom teacher. I’ve kept it quiet because instead of a “last” year, I just wanted one more really good year– one more chance to get it right. I am loving this year and this class. I can’t believe how lucky I am to be ending my career with the same love of teaching that I had at the beginning. It is time to turn the page. In June I will step across the threshold of Room 204 into “next.” It works in both directions. Stepping across that threshold has always been an act of hope.