On Danielle Villhard’s first day of teaching ever—which happened this September—one of her second graders introduced herself and said, “I’m going to be a botanist when I grow up.”
On the hectic first day of school, doing high-stakes work she’d never done before in the middle of a pandemic, it would have made complete sense for Danielle to smile kindly at the comment and then forget it amid the swirl of other concerns. Instead, she absorbed what her student had told her, and then thought: “Wow; we have a lot to learn this year to get you ready for that.”
That seven-year-old’s aspiration has continued to shape how Danielle thinks about her work all year.
Across her white board now, big enough for every student to see every day, Danielle proclaims: “The future of the world is in this classroom.” She explains, “I have future Presidents, future botanists, future engineers, future filmmakers, and I’m excited to see them achieve those things in the future.” You can hear her unwavering conviction here:
This Teacher Appreciation Week, it is worth taking a moment to consider what exactly we appreciate in life-altering teachers. Good teaching requires a host of skills and dispositions, but those stand a better chance of making a difference when educators begin with what Danielle asserts here: faith in who their students are and in who they can become. It is the faith that causes a teacher to take what a seven-year-old says about her future seriously and to work hard for it.
That is not always easy. Belief in our students, like any kind of faith, is an act of will, not an emotion. And that faith in our students can be a particular challenge at this time of year, when teachers have sunk months of work on student habits they have yet to see change, or on skills that kids still struggle with. Real conviction that a seven-year-old can become a botanist or a President—not just wishful thinking or platitudes—takes creativity and urgency, particularly on those days when those young people—or we, their educators—fall short.
As Danielle reflects, “Humility is definitely a core value that I’m learning to practice as a teacher. Some days go better than others, but my students have really shown me how important it is to not give up even when things get tough, and to keep moving forward.”
That faith in students, then, requires teachers to have faith in themselves—the conviction that they can find the approaches that work for every child, even when they are by no means certain of what those strategies might be. Danielle is supported in this quest by her colleagues at St. Athanasius in the Bronx and by her housemates, who like her are fellows in the University of Notre Dame’s ACE program for new teachers.
Danielle’s faith in God also impacts what she does in the classroom; it sets her off on a particular daily quest. “I love the idea of ‘God winks,’” she says, “Even on the most stressful days, when it feels like nothing is going right, I’ve been struck by the small but meaningful moments of friendship, joy, and service I see in my students. Before we pray in our classroom, we always take a deep breath in and out to calm our bodies and remind us that we are in the presence of God. That practice is as much for me as it is for my students, as they remind me that God is present in our classroom.”
To be a teacher of faith isn’t about being an ideologue; it is about embarking on a search in the classroom, a search for the best in our students, glimpses of ‘God winks’. If our children are fortunate, they have teachers who combine personal humility with faith in themselves and our kids’ futures. And if teachers are fortunate, as Danielle reflects, they find more in their classrooms than they came looking for: “I’ve had many moments of feeling inadequate to be teaching religion when I am not the strongest Catholic or when I am struggling with aspects of the religion myself. However, my students—seven- and eight-year-olds—share ideas, perspectives, and actions that have made me step back and consider things in ways I haven’t before.”
We appreciate every teacher in our network this week, and in a special way, we appreciate those in their first years of teaching, like Danielle. To persist in believing in your students, in yourselves, and in God’s presence with you, when the complications of the classroom are even greater than usual, is truly inspiring.