I have to admit I have been working on this post for several weeks. I am not sure why it has been such a difficult one to write. The topic is one we all know well, but it’s not really something we talk about as much. It all started with a conversation I had with some friends. That’s what usually happens. I have a conversation about something not related to school and while reflecting, I ask myself if the situation applies to me as a teacher. Typically, it does!

We were talking about someone who had gone through a difficult time personally. Through the whole thing, she never let on that anything was wrong. We discussed how surprised everyone was to learn about the struggle mostly because she hid everything so well that no one knew. She wore a mask of sorts. When she went to work or was out with friends, she had her mask on so that no one could see what was really going on. As I thought about it, I realized we all wear masks to some degree.

We wear the “put on a smile and be happy” mask on days when things aren’t going well. We wear the “I’m full of energy” mask when we didn’t sleep well the night before, but we still have students to motivate. We wear the “I feel great” mask when we are sick but toughing it out so as not to miss a day of instruction.

I started thinking about my students. A colleague once told me, “You only THINK you know your students. You really don’t.” It occurred to me that I might need to look behind their masks. After all, kids wear them too, especially in middle school. There’s the “I act out in class to hide the fact that I really don’t understand” mask. Then there’s the “I criticize others because that’s how I am treated at home” mask. And, of course, there are those masks that say, “you will only know what I want you to know.” When I am having a hard time reaching a student I have to remind myself they might have on a mask. Sometimes, it’s impossible to get the mask off, but if I can at least pull it away a little so I can look behind, then I might be able to get a glimpse of what’s really going on.

Our students deal with so much outside of school. They face stresses and family situations that are hard for some of us to imagine. I want to create an environment in my class that makes school a relaxing, safe, fun place to learn, socialize and feel valued as a person. If we learn some math in the process, then that’s great. I truly believe if I create that environment for all of my students, they will feel good about themselves, at least while they are with me. I know when I feel good about myself, I am more motivated and productive. Maybe, just maybe, that will happen with my students as well.