What My Kids Taught Me: Lessons I Learned As a Teacher

There was a show that aired in the 80s and 90s called “Kids Say the Darndest Things”. The gist of it was that there would be an adult host, who being reasonably comfortable with young kids, would ask the children questions that often ended with hilariously honest answers.

What is most striking to me about the program is how unafraid the children were of being judged or of being boring. Their responses to questions were brutally honest, and yet intuitive to the point that even an adult might share their same logic.

Much of the humor of the show is brought about because the child says what the adult would be afraid to say. The self-consciousness that often governs how adults interact with one another is almost entirely absent in these clips. “What’s the hardest part about going to school?” the host asks one child. “Buttoning my pants,” the boy responds with no hesitation.

The fear of being considered boring or uninteresting can have a huge effect on how we connect with those around us. At a party, we want to be liked, we want to be accepted, and we think the only way that will happen is if we have something important, intelligent or witty to say.

Everyday I work with children. The majority of my day is spent talking with young students, and although I often have an agenda and need to make sure I’m teaching them something of value, I also get to hear their stories on anything from disappointing their parents to feeding their younger brother dog food.

During my five years working with kids, I have come to appreciate how light and clear their perceptions can be. I have learned an enormous amount from eleven, twelve and thirteen year olds, and there are some spectacular lessons that they, as the students, have taught me.

Waking up is a gift

Yea, Chance said it best, as he tends to, but every morning I show up to school, it is my students that remind me to smile and feel alive. They don’t need coffee, they run on pure, spontaneous, effortless energy. Everyday holds something new for them, and they embrace the opportunity to take in something new or see something in a new way. The day offers them this and they take it gratefully.

No doubt, children become moody, at times in a most extreme sense, but even that intense emotion can bring an adult to forget about their own discontents and try earnestly to lift the child’s low spirits.

The first thing my students teach me, everyday, is to be joyful in the feeling itself. The anxiety, the jealousy, and yes the laughter and curiosity as well. It is all present in children and manifests itself in such a clear, unabashed way.

Everyday, we need to be honest with ourselves and recognize that it is only in the present that we act and make changes to ourselves.

Knowledge is freedom

Can you remember that spark of energy you would feel when something clicked in the classroom? That flash of understanding that dispelled the haze of confusion? To me, in those moments, the world was lit up and a deeper clarity trickled through my mind. Stuff made sense.

However, it’s hard to ignite that same feeling these days. Our days are swallowed up by professional and personal responsibilities, and at the end of the day we feel accomplished if we managed to just get it all done.

Students aren’t bogged down in the same mucky obligation, and I’ve seen in my students the recognition that the learning that occurs in classroom is an opportunity to see the world in new ways.

The pursuit of knowledge is one of those rare things that is entirely under our own control. We respect intelligence because it can only grow through one’s own effort. Students see this pathway more clearly than most, and in turn have the gift of seeing knowledge as an end in itself.

We are emotional creatures

There is little point in denying it. As much as we would like to see ourselves as purely rational, logical creatures, our emotions often dictate our choices and the way we carry ourselves in the world.

Students do not hide their emotions as adults are so prone to do.

There are reasons why we should not allow emotions to control our behavior. However, through my experience working with students, I have seen the damage done when we try to ignore or suppress what we are really feeling.

A student does not hide their disappointment at receiving a bad grade or being picked last for a game of pick-up, and this self-acceptance allows for them to move past it.

Without acknowledging our emotions, without being honest with our emotional selves, we deny a large part of what it means to be human. We adults at times need to cry, to laugh, to shout. Lord knows kids do.

Enjoy the simple things

Remember how excited you would get to go to a friend’s house for a sleepover? When all that it would take to become giddy would be the prospect of ice-cream, movies and gossip?

Now, when the weekends are approaching, I am immediately consumed with thoughts on how I will fill my free time. How can I maximize my weekend by doing the coolest things, or going to the coolest places? If I am not doing something “like-worthy” then it can’t be good enough.

This attitude seems to be most acute in our 20s, and is a mode of thinking that both children and older adults have a better grasp on. To enjoy oneself need not mean doing something rare or extravagant.

There is a deep satisfaction to be had in the effortless acts—reading in a sunny spot, riding a bike down a street, trying a new recipe, building a pillow fort…

My students have reminded me that is takes very little to create a moment of pure joy; we find this feeling in ourselves, not outside of us.


BeBen Gulla ulla is an educator living in Cape Town, South Africa. He has worked in classrooms around the world for the past five years teaching English language and literature.