Way back when I was just a wee college student trying to decide what I was going to do with my life (aka five whole years ago), I was in the heart of four years of intense Young Life ministry. Seeing how much I loved working with high school students, I felt like being a teacher was the perfect way to combine my love of languages with my desire to impact high schoolers. I knew I would walk into a high school and immediately have meaningful, deep relationships and conversations with every student I met each and every day (this is the part where all the veteran teachers laugh).
But as I started teaching, I started to realize that teaching is quite a bit different than leading student ministry. For starters, I saw 160 students every day, with as many as 30 students in my room at one time. I traveled between two schools every day, so I often wasn’t there for those before, after, and in between moments that help build relationships. I had a handful of good conversations and got to see students’ hearts in tiny glimpses, but for the most part, my days were consumed with the daily realities of lesson planning, classroom management, and keeping rowdy 8th graders from driving me and each other crazy while still teaching them a thing or two about Spanish.
Finding Meaning In the School Days
I teach middle school, which is a season in life where most kids feel painfully confused about whether they matter, about whether they have something in them worth noticing and seeing and celebrating. So even if I can’t have deep, meaningful relationships with every kid in my classroom, I can take steps to teach them things that extend beyond verb conjugation and new vocabulary. And if I could instill one thing in those students who spend nine months in my classroom, it would be the resounding message that they MATTER, that they have value and they always will have value, no matter what anyone says to them or about them.
One of my favorite ways to teach this is to do is an illustration I remember seeing at a youth group event in high school. When I saw this illustration done, I had just come out of a relationship where I made decisions that compromised my values, a relationship that made me confused about who I am and where my worth comes from. I remember tears falling down my cheeks as the truth sank in that no matter what I’ve done, no matter what was said about me or done to me I still have VALUE, and that is something no one can take away. And now, I do this illustration on the first day of every school year.
How I Use A $20 Bill To Teach Students They Have Value
I pull out a $20 bill from my desk, wave it in the air, and ask if anyone wants twenty bucks. Pretty much everyone raises their hand, and a few brave ones start shouting or waving their hands in the air to get it (some kids’ personalities take about three minutes to show themselves on that first day).
I take the $20, crumple it into a ball, throw it on the ground, stomp on it a few times, and say something silly along the lines of “This is a dumb, good for nothing, worthless $20 bill!” I uncrumple it, hold it up again, and ask the same question. “Does anyone still want this $20 bill?” And every kid raises their hand.
I ask them why they still want this $20 bill when so much has been done to it, when it’s dirty and torn and I’ve said so many mean things about it. A few quick ones will raise their hand and say something about how a $20 bill is a $20 bill, and no matter how dirty it is or what you say about it, it’s still worth $20. And this is where the kids start to get quiet. I say something along these lines (imagine me in a stylish yet professional teacher’s outfit using my teacher voice here, not wearing my yoga pants and sitting on my couch like I’m currently doing):
“You are so right. A $20 bill is made with a certain value. It is always worth $20, no matter how many times it is stepped on, crumpled up, or thrown on the floor. No matter what anyone says about it or does to it, it is always worth $20 because it was MADE with that value. And the same thing is true about you.”
“This is your third year in middle school, so you already know that when you walk through these hallways people are going to do and say things that make you feel like you don’t matter, like you aren’t worth anything. Maybe you’ve heard those things at home, heard a parent or someone you love say or do something that makes you feel like you don’t have value, that who you are doesn’t matter. There’s a whole world out there that will do and say everything it can to make you feel like you don’t measure up, like something is wrong with you and you’ll never be good enough.
But when you walk into this classroom every day, I want you to know something. You. Have. Value. You are brave and kind and you have something to offer this class, this school, and our world that is incredibly important and desperately needed. No matter what a friend, a parent, a teacher, or anyone else has said or done to make you feel like you don’t matter, I want you to know that you do. Just like this $20 that still has value after everything done to it, you are incredibly valuable. Your heart matters, your thoughts matter, your story matters, and YOU matter, and everything we do in this class will be with that in mind.”
HOW THIS IMPACTS THE CLASSROOM
At this point the kids are quiet, and usually looking at me with a curious and surprised look since they didn’t expect the crazy lady who started out speaking Spanish to say anything like this. I have them turn to a neighbor and brainstorm how our class would look different if they truly believed they matter and their peers matter.
Together,we talk about how if we believe that we matter, we will be brave enough to share our ideas and answers, because we know that getting a wrong answer doesn’t make us any less of a person. If we believe that we matter, then we have to believe that our learning matters, and we will take the time to ask questions when we don’t understand something. We talk about how if we believe our classmates matter, we will listen when they share without interrupting or making sarcastic comments that make them feel unimportant. If we believe that kid sitting alone in the cafeteria matters, we will take the time to say hi and introduce ourselves.
And lastly, we talk about how if we believe that people in the world matter, we will believe that cultural differences are good and different, rather than just wrong (don’t get me started on how much I hear about this one in a language classroom). We will look at people from other languages and cultures as interesting and unique, because if they have value, then the things that are important to them should be important to us too.
The Real Life Impact Of These Conversations
These conversations don’t always go perfectly and seriously, and we laugh and mess up and work through these things together. I know that in reality, many of my students walk out of my room and forget about what we talked about, and that two weeks in the year when someone makes a sarcastic, hurtful comment, we will have to revisit the whole idea again.
Even so, I think having these conversations is so important. I’ll be honest with you: I don’t care all that much if my students learn Spanish. No matter how hard I try, the reality is they will probably turn out like 90% of the U.S. adult population who laugh and say they took Spanish in high school but don’t remember a single thing (language teachers love hearing this, by the way).
But if my students walk into my classroom and feel safe to be who they are, to take risks to love themselves well, love other people well, and learn something new, then I believe I’ve done my job. If I can teach them that that they are brave and kind and they have value, not because of what they do or achieve but because like a $20 bill, they were MADE with value, then I have done my job well.
And for now, folks, that will have to do.
If you are a teacher or a parent, what do you do to instill a sense of value in your children and students? I’m always looking for new ideas!
I’m linking back to this post at Imparting Grace, Embracing His Will, A Life In Balance, Purposeful Faith, A Fresh Start On A Budget, What Joy Is Mine, The Beauty In His Grip, Strangers And Pilgrims On Earth, Soul Survival, Me Coffee and Jesus, Women With Intention, A Little R & R, A Wise Woman Builds Her Home, Coffee For Your Heart,Serving Joyfully, 3D Lessons 4 Life, The Deliberate Mom, Dance With Jesus,Missional Women, Busy Being Blessed, Live Free Thursdays, Whole Hearted Wednesdays, Thriving Thursdays, Christian Mommy Bloggers, Still Saturdays, Tuesday Talk, This Is How We Do It, and Modest Mondays.