By Jonathan Juravich, 2018 Ohio Teacher of the Year
Seven years ago, I had a first-grade student, Madeline, who was diagnosed with stage-4 Neuroblastoma cancer in the middle of the school year. We all have those moments in life when we think “I have to do something,” but you don’t know what to do and don’t know how to help. That feeling can become crippling. Seven years ago, this was me.
To Madeline, I was her teacher and worked with her in the art room- this was my role. I wasn’t her parent, a family member, or even a friend. But I couldn’t shake the desire to do something, to truly connect with her as an individual. I kept trying to think of some grandiose gesture that would make some kind of impressive impact. But instead… I showed up.
I showed up to the hospital to talk with her about what was happening at school while she was out and I told her about what her friends were doing. I showed up to talk her into eating lunch when she kept pushing it away. I showed up to play endless games of Chutes and Ladders. As her hair began to fall out from treatments, I shaved my head to match hers, in front of her class. See, in those moments I realized something: that every day we are faced with opportunities to make a positive difference for others. For Madeline, I did what I knew how to do… I showed up, listened, and participated in her life.
I quickly realized that I was modeling behaviors of empathy for my students -- all of my students. They saw their teacher connecting with their classmate and I invited them along in the process. We used visual art to build a relationship with her, to share with her, and to process our emotions. This practice has become an integral part of my work in the classroom, engaging students to make connections with others through art.
It was during those years of her treatment that I changed as an educator. I had always been an enthusiastic, hard-working teacher. But this experience opened my eyes to the importance of relationships in the field of education. There was so much to know about my students: their families, their cultures, their passions, their dreams, their story. And then, once we know these truths, how do they inform our teaching as well as the experiences and supports we provide?
Madeline is now in 8th grade. She is happy, healthy, and full of life. Her smile is incredibly infectious. My role in her life has changed. I don’t see her every day, or show up with paintings of flowers from her classmates, or surprise her by toilet papering the outside of her house (yeah, I actually did that). But I know now what I am capable of as an educator, and as a person. As educators, we can’t wait for something big, like cancer, to foster connections with our students and with each other. By acting in the small moments of life, we are able to make an impact for our students as individuals, and for their futures.
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