When Kyle Schwartz started teaching third grade at Doull Elementary School in Denver, she wanted to get to know her students better. She asked them to finish the sentence “I wish my teacher knew.”
The responses were eye-opening for Ms. Schwartz. Some children were struggling with poverty (“I wish my teacher knew I don’t have pencils at home to do my homework”); an absent parent (“I wish my teacher knew that sometimes my reading log is not signed because my mom isn’t around a lot”); and a parent taken away (“I wish my teacher knew how much I miss my dad because he got deported to Mexico when I was 3 years old and I haven’t seen him in six years”).
The lesson spurred Ms. Schwartz, now entering her fifth teaching year, to really understand what her students were facing outside the classroom to help them succeed at school. When she shared the lesson last year with others, it became a sensation, with the Twitter hashtag “#iwishmyteacherknew” going viral. Other teachers tried the exercise and had similar insights. Many sent her their students’ responses.
In her recently published book, “I Wish My Teacher Knew: How One Question Can Change Everything For Our Kids,” Ms. Schwartz details how essential it is for teachers and families to be partners.
“I really want families to know how intentional teachers are about creating a sense of community and creating relationships with kids,” Ms. Schwartz said. “Kids don’t learn when they don’t feel safe or valued.”
Melody Molinoff of Washington, D.C., who has two sons, ages 9 and 11, in the public school system, agreed.
“Parents see the teacher as their partner in bringing up their child, and that’s a huge responsibility that we are putting on our teachers and our schools,” Ms. Molinoff said. “I always want my sons’ teachers to know what their challenges are, what they like, just more about them.”
Mary Clayman, a fourth-grade teacher in the Washington public schools, said she has noticed the same thing from the other side of the desk.
“I’ve taught over 500 kids so far in my career and parents in every grade want to know how their child is doing socially and emotionally, often times more so than whether they can multiply or divide quite yet,” Mrs. Clayman said.
In her book, Ms. Schwartz writes about mistakes that might have been prevented if she had known her students better. She had a student named Chris who was obsessed with science. Ms. Schwartz thought she had done Chris a huge favor by securing a spot for him in a science-focused summer camp. But she was unaware of the family’s financial struggles and it turned out that his parents could not afford to take time off from work to get Chris to camp.
Ms. Schwartz said classrooms can become a supportive environment for students coping with grief. She suggests that schools have “grief and loss” inventories for students who have gone through a crisis, with input from families so that the child’s future teachers know what that student is dealing with.
“As teachers, we know parents are the first and best teachers for their children and we want them to work with us,” she said.