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The Second Draft - Volume 33, No. 2

“I Wish My Teacher Knew” DOWNLOAD PDF

  • Rachel H. Smith
    Professor of Legal Writing & Associate Dean for Experiential & Skills-Based Education
    St. John’s University School of Law

In July 2016, I moved my family—my husband, my two daughters (both toddlers), my two grouchy cats, and me—from Miami to Brooklyn. This move and its challenges have informed my teaching in small, but significant, ways ever since.


The move was destabilizing, even though we were moving completely by choice. We were moving for my job—a job I was really excited about. We were also moving so that my husband and I could live closer to our closest friends, which was thrilling. In the abstract, we felt nothing but excitement for our new life. In the real, we were stressed to the max.


Soon after we arrived in Brooklyn, I started going into the office. There was so much I needed to do. And I was doing it, getting everything settled so that I would be ready to teach in the fall. But when I was at the office, I was also worrying about the complete disarray at home. I was trying to act like everything was normal, when everything was not normal. How could it be? I had just moved the small circus of my life a thousand miles. I would be there at work, trying to unpack my hastily packed boxes; trying to make connections with my new colleagues; trying to figure out how everything worked at an institution that was totally strange to me; and I would find myself fretting over all the things you fret over when you move. Would our belongings ever get delivered? Would we ever figure out where to buy the one kind of squeezy mango that was the only food my older daughter would reliably eat? (Answer: no, I bought them on Amazon.) And would the cats ever forgive us? (Answer: not yet, four years and counting.)


Anyone who has ever moved—basically everyone—knows it taxes a person mentally, physically, and emotionally. When I was feeling stretched in this way, I wanted the world to show me some empathy and understanding. I wanted the kids’ summer camp to understand that I couldn’t get the health form because we didn’t have a pediatrician, and I couldn’t get a pediatrician because we didn’t have internet in our barren apartment, and, even if I could’ve gotten a pediatrician, our insurance hadn’t kicked in yet. And more, I wanted them to understand that I was never going to be able to arrange any of those things if I couldn’t send my kids to summer camp for a few hours a day.


I know the cliché: Be patient with people, because you can never know the battles they are fighting. I agree with this approach to life! And before the move, I would have sworn that I treated my students that way. But I really didn’t. The challenges of the move made clear to me that I hadn’t been treating my students the way that I wanted to be treated—at least not the way I wanted to be treated when I was in the middle of a very stressful moment where my entire life was upside down. This really hit home for me when school started.


Right after the start of school that fall, I read a New York Times article about an exercise that third grade teacher Kyle Schwartz had done with her students. It was simple. She asked her students to complete the sentence: I wish my teacher knew . . . .


As Schwartz describes in her book,


Each student’s response was unique. They responded with honesty, humor, and vulnerability. Sometimes their notes talked about their favorite sport. Sometimes students complained about conflict with siblings or friends. They wrote about their home life and the people who meant most to them. Sometimes they articulated their hopes for the future and sometimes they explained obstacles they were facing. After completing this lesson, I was amazed at how well it helped me connect with my students. Their notes became a tangible reminder for me to truly listen to the voices of students in my classroom.


Ms. Schwartz’s exercise went viral after she tweeted some of her third graders’ responses. They were powerful examples of how much her students were going through outside of school.


A screenshot of a cell phone

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In reading about this exercise so soon after my move, I realized that I was teaching 1Ls who had just gone through or were in the midst of the same kind of destabilizing upheaval I had just experienced. And more so, they were starting a long, expensive educational endeavor that would change the course of their lives. And many of them didn’t know anyone or anything about what was about to happen. And many of them were so young, fresh out of college, just barely adults. If an exciting and voluntary move had done so much to set me—a certified adult with financial resources and life experience—off balance, I realized that I had no idea how hard such a change must be for at least some of my students.


In this light, the issues I saw in class every fall started to make sense to me in a way they never had. Could this be why many of my students made the same small mistakes over and over? Could this be why they struggled to follow directions that I felt were clear? Could this be why they were late or missed appointments or didn’t come to class prepared? My relationship with my students is often so focused on our class and the skills I want them to learn that I am shocked that they don’t remember to spell judgment with one e or to add page numbers to a document. How can that be? How can they forget something I told them? We talked about it in class! After the move, it was plain why they sometimes forgot the minutiae that I wanted them to notice. They had so much going on.


Of course, not every issue that every student presents can be explained away with the simple statement, “They must have a lot going on.” The fact that students’ lives happen mostly outside of class and can be complicated and stressful can’t justify low expectations or outright apathy on my part. Law school professors, and legal writing professors specifically, must help students satisfy expectations even when things in their lives are in disarray. After all, that is in many ways what work is: the thing you have to try to do well, even when everything else is out of place. But my move, and all the out-of-class complications it created, made me realize that deep empathy for my students was where I wanted our relationship to start. Why not show them the kind of understanding I had hoped for?


Like most professors, I ask my students to send me an introductory email at the beginning of the semester. I used to ask them to answer specific questions: where they grew up; lawyers (real or fictional) they admire; their favorite book (almost every student answered Harry Potter for this one). But that fall, and ever since, I have asked for something much simpler: what is something they wish I knew. Some answers are mundane: “I love lacrosse!” But others reveal the anxieties, pressures, and complexity that our students bring with them to law school: “I am the first in my family to graduate college, as well as attend law school.” “I am the proud father of a two-month-old girl named Olivia.” “I moved to New York from India by myself, when I turned 18, simply because I wanted a change.” And by asking, I remind myself of the kind of professor I want to be (and of the fact that I am never—never!—moving again).


Author’s Note: I wrote this essay “before.” Before the pandemic, before the murder of George Floyd, before life changed in ways that I never expected. But the ways life has been upended in 2020 have only made it more imperative that we invite our students to share with us the challenges and circumstances they bring to our (online or socially distanced) classrooms and that we offer them empathy and understanding in return.