What I Wish I Had Said to My Students

Ryan Magiera is a first year National Teaching Fellow at Cesar Chavez Academy in East Palo Alto, California.

Picture 30 eighth grade students lined up against a fence at lunch recess facing their school. They have just been reprimanded for using playground equipment irresponsibly. They are all looking at you, waiting for you to say something. You know you should have words of wisdom ready to go. You know this is a “teaching moment.” But you freeze.

That’s exactly what happened in January with a group of students from Cesar Chavez Academy in East Palo Alto, California. I froze, and said nothing.

Later that night I thought about that moment. Here’s what I wish I had said…

Opening Door for Cynthia_I_1 “You are a special group from East Palo Alto. You can be the agents for change. I can feel it. I can see it.

Keila, the way your eyes widened during our Rocket Launch in science explorations.

Ramon,  I don’t think you’ll agree with your statement that “board games are called board games because they’re BORING” anymore – once you finally sat down and played chess against me, you were as strategic as a war general.

And Diana, the gears really cranked and wheels spun when you finally opened up to speak about the line of car mechanics in your father’s family.

All of you have such potential. We push out the consequences because we see that potential expressed in a counterproductive way. You will all do something great one day, whether that day is tomorrow, or ten years from now. Either way, I do not want to be the one who held you back by not holding you accountable for your actions.

Today it was a soccer ball. Tomorrow it might be a laptop. But on the job, if you steal someone’s things, you won’t be lined up against a school fence facing in. You’ll be lined up on a prison fence facing out, when really, you all can be helping your family, community and country to break fences down. The choice is yours.”

I didn’t exactly capitalize on the captive audience of those pre-teens at the time, but my message to other new educators is to look for these moments to teach in unconventional ways.

We might not always know exactly what to say in every “teaching moment.” And that’s ok. We need to trust that teaching moments will happen when we least expect it–whether inside or outside of the classroom. Even if we can’t promise that we’ll always do and say the right thing at first, we can promise to be there. To not leave. To commit to excellence. To love and allow for growth. Any by doing that, we are teaching.