Denver teacher learns what her students really want her to know

DENVER — The assignment that Denver Public School teacher Ms. Kyle Schwartz gave to her third-grade class was simple. The reaction reached Africa.

“I felt like there was something I was missing,” Schwartz said about her first year of teaching students at Doull Elementary in the Harvey Park neighborhood. “I really wanted to connect with the students and find out what was going on in their lives, so I just decided to let them tell me."

She handed each student a sticky note.

“I wrote on the board, ‘I wish my teacher knew ________,’” she said.

Schwartz told the students they could be funny or serious.

Some of the students wrote of their gratitude, telling her how much they enjoyed having her as a teacher or about their favorite sport.

Other students wrote notes telling of their struggles or challenges.

“I wish my teacher knew I don’t have pencils at home to do my homework,” one student wrote.

“Quite frankly, I get a version of that now every single year,” Schwartz said. She has had her students do the assignment each year since.

She posed one of the notes on Twitter, and her assignment took off.

This month she asked her sixth-grade class of students to do the same assignment.

“I wish my teacher knew I love her and giraffes,” one student wrote.

As Schwartz has grown to expect, others wrote notes with a different tone.

“I wish my teacher knew that I struggle through a lot of things because everyone bugs me,” the student wrote.

“I wish my teacher knew in my apartments, people bully me,” a different note read.

“Kids have told me you know I wish my teacher knew that my father was deported. I wish my teacher knew I don’t get to see my mom anymore. It really touches your heart because it’s kind of a space you can’t really fill for kids,” Schwartz said.

One day she got a call from a literary agent who asked her about writing a book.

Schwartz wrote the book "I Wish My Teacher Knew." In it, she includes more notes written by students and lessons about teaching today’s youth that she’s gained through the assignment and her time as an educator.

“A lot of people think that what teachers do all day is teach multiplication and how to sound out words. We do that through relationship building. It’s through building a community in your classroom,” Schwartz said.

After making the notes public, she has received support she calls overwhelming.

“I got messages from someone who was working with Syrian refugees in Germany and had tried this. I have got — I just got messages from a teacher in Algeria who had tried this with her students. I think it really speaks to just how universal the student-teacher relationship is and how much kids want to be known and how much teachers want to get to know and build relationships with kids across the world,” she said.

Schwartz says the attention her assignment and book received was unexpected but has helped boost many teachers.

“This is a really hard job and often times — in some ways — a thankless job. And so to know that people see the work that teachers are doing and they appreciate it, it’s really encouraging,” she said.

Her school has embraced a new style. Teachers and administrators focus on fostering community, not just reading, writing and arithmetic. 

The school has replaced detention with after school yoga-reflection. Administrators also offer a version of yoga to all students.

The district has a mindfulness coach who meets with classes to teach practices like claiming down, focusing and meditation.

The mindfulness coach hosts professional development for teachers after school so that they can learn a way to cope with the stress of the job, Schwartz says.

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