As a teacher, I see the fears similar to those of Henny Penny in my students. Many of whom have not only imagined sky-falling scenarios but have lived through them. Despite the real-world concerns, I regularly field questions tangled with panic. What will happen if I can’t submit? Is it okay to miss the deadline? Apologies stock and stack, then string and strand like syllables. Information revealed neither veiled nor properly mine. I wonder why our system assumes in class restrictions approximate real-world deadlines. Artificial mandates in classroom communities and spaces are as old as time. As I scroll then formulate my replies, I apply what I’ve learn from books and babes in all of my classrooms. Spaces both physical and digital. And seek to diffuse the fear of falling skies and loses with no opportunities to renew.
Their written emails a reminder and a recollection. I think of my youngest son in my lap years prior. His palm clutched in mine – both of us aware that not all of life is fairytale. He’d anticipate the worst in stories such as Have You Seen My Mother as we read. Then hope, if not wait, for a respite for the hatchling seeking its mother amidst life’s many types of bait. Breathes in stages and pages. We grow of lengthened limbs and layered longing. At our core we’re still in many ways always on the cusp of new hatchlings. And just because I know the sky over Henny Penny’s head isn’t falling, the question might be new to a reader all the same. And just because the sky over my head remained, that isn’t to say my students walk in a similar range.
Some weeks I receive more emails on Sunday’s than I do Monday through Saturday combined. A fair share of texts and phone calls too. I have an open contact policy. Reach out anytime. Some of it is colleagues trying to get a head start on the week. Less than ten percent. The bulk of the communications are student-initiated. Most new to higher ed. Often sharing the stuff that life is made of. They write in honest and raw text. Reveal layers of loss. Less reliant on Eastman-type rhymes. Share heartfelt sentiments, ninety percent of the time. Families, friends, strangers. I need to tell you something they say. I hope you understand. Admit to personal trials. No courts fully fair. I have no excuse. I’m just tired. Got called into work. Need another shift. A family rift.
As I respond to student emails, I put policy aside. I reply calmly and seek to be a trusted comrade. Less Henny Pennypanic. More happy endings. A diet of consistency. No need to compare -- all things one, two, three more. Welcomes in the digital door. Communicate I say and I will always extend an empathetic reply. No questions asked policy. My syllabi heavily detailed. My approach to late penalties something I’ve never fully reconciled. Truth is life is often penalty enough. I’ve always believed the classroom should be a safe place. To show up. To experiment. To explore new things. I rarely impose penalties for late work. Though my students are conditioned to anticipate -- skies always near falling. They communicate. It’s a complicated relationship. Power structures and systemic dynamics to blame. Even when I promise flexibility and a no-notice-needed policy, my students continue to share and reveal without blame.
As I read and reply, I try hard to be whom they need me to be. Like when I read Have You Seen My Mother to my toddler with a baby at my feet. An empathetic listener offering a second, sometimes third try.
Like my parenting, my teaching philosophy has changed over time. The more I read the more I write. The more I write the better I understand. My parenting and teaching philosophy as dynamic as conflict. Both reading and writing have also deeply influenced the way I parent. A delicate dance of constructivism and compassion. Perhaps it’s a chicken and egg story. Perhaps it’s simply a game of play. I couldn’t say which came first. I’m also not sure it matters. What I’ve learned and what I think is most important is that human connection is borne through stories. Those in the emails are both a window and a reminder of the trails, trials, and tribulations we all (my own children included) might encounter.
When a student admits I’m just tired; I had too many assignments due at the same time, I extend grace. No need to replicate the real-world in what should also be a safe place. I also make a note (written) to check in. With my own children, too. Especially when they might not share as readily. I’ve learned to savor the silence and provide space to others to think the power of the pause is well documented.
Teaching has made me both a more intuitive writer and a more present mindful parent. Writing has also taught and continues to teach me to be a better more mindful and more reflective listener. In the coming year I’ll revisit with an increasing frequency some of my own children’s childhood favorites as a tool to remind and rewind. For now, I reflect. On craft and news drafts. I think of Henny Penny and the lost hatchling. And falling skies and lost mothers. As I interact, teach, and write, I remember.
Mostly, I’ve learned to be more patient. Less prodding. My students respond to my “no questions asked policy” by sharing more, not less. I wait and I listen and provide the space for them to make the room their own. As much as they share there is always the possibility of silence.
My students don’t seek responses to their emails -- only understanding. They don’t seek answers -- only leniency. They don’t seek exposition -- only empathy.
I soak it all in just like I hope my students do the same. All lessons layered. They too teachers.
My own children’s favorite books offered safe spaces to cry. The emails in my inbox often serve a similar opportunity to comply. And to apply what I’ve learned in my parenting. And my writing. And do my best knowing that many days I come up short. To listen. To refrain from speaking and offer a soft landing.
In the end I realize questions of chronology aren’t what matters. I’m grateful for both Henny Penny and the hatchling seeking its mother. For all the stories both read and told. For the unexpected blessings of their lessons. For the reminder of just how much I can continue to learn from all types of matter.
Thanks to these tales (both folklore and queries that implore) I welcome the emails. Feel gratitude for the conversations and the questions as they move from queries seeking mothers to questions in need of answers. I may not be the mother or the sky, but I can comply with a prompt and kind reply. And look forward to the daily opportunity to create safer spaces.