Teachers pay attention to teachable moments, those moments when conflict arises, someone makes a mistake, someone demonstrates grace under fire, someone recognizes a paradox or spots an opportunity. When you work with children, you spend your day noticing such moments; you seek them out because they are how the world supports your work. Sam trips, and the response of his classmates shows their capacity for and skill at caring. Susan and Sally both want the same seat, and their next actions show their competence with problem solving and compromise. Stan makes a mistake at the board, and the teacher’s response shows her skill at making things safe and clarifying the problem, so Stan can find his mistake and learn from it. Teachers are sensitive to the manifold opportunities for teaching in the moment.
As a school leader, I also seek to discover the teachable moment, with students, of course, but also with teachers and parents. In these moments, we may all grow. When I meet with eighth grade students at Leadership Council (all students are welcome, but each must write a letter to me nominating himself or herself and giving evidence of his or her leadership potential), I listen to their description of their experiences at school. I tell them that I do not live in their daily lives, exactly – they are living in ‘kid world’ – but in my own, parallel adult world, and that I need them to tell me what it is like to be one of them. If they trust me enough, they will tell me where their problems are: when homework is overwhelming, when teacher communication feels unclear or unkind, when a student is trying to gain power by being unkind to others, even when the lunch line isn’t working efficiently. These are all teachable moments, and together, we move from identifying them to figuring out what we can learn from them, what the students can change in the world and what they can change in themselves.
Eighth grade students at James River also have opportunities to serve as tutors and mentors to younger students, simply by wanting to do so and being willing to give up some of their study time before or after school, or during study hall. They go to work with Kindergarten, first, second, third, or fourth graders who might need homework coaching, buddy reading, notebook organization, study skills, and they pass along what they have learned from their teachers and peers. They find teachable moments with the younger children and share their wisdom.
All students in grades five-eight belong to small, multi-age group advisories, which meet every day after lunch for study hall. Older students set the example for younger students in organization, homework completion, studying for tests and quizzes, and time management. They remember what it was like to be younger. They remember struggling to learn how to keep up with something or how challenging it was to learn how to take notes, and they share their experience with the younger children, taking the moment when the child is really ready to change something in his or her behavior, and then guiding him or her toward success.
I believe in school as a learning community, where each of us has myriad opportunities to gain knowledge about ourselves and the world around us, every single day. When I speak with students, teachers and parents, I am listening for their deepest selves: what they fear, what they wish, what satisfies them, and then I am looking for that teachable moment when my listening and reflecting can help them learn how to move forward. The teachable moment can be painful and powerful, but at heart, it is joyous because it is about fulfilling potential in the present.