There is a screwtop plastic jar in my kitchen. It is slowly filling with crusty pennies and sticky nickels and dirty dimes. An occasional quarter makes it in, but that is rare. The jar itself is something I bought near Faneuil Hall in Boston when I had my class there for a sleepover trip a couple of years ago. I am not allowed to take such a trip without bringing something home for my daughter, and this jar was her present from that particular trip.
The jar is the size and shape of the mason jars people use for canning, but this jar has a twist. The lid has a slot for coins and a digital display screen that shows a running total of how much money is inside. Right now the total reads $8.24.
The reason many of the coins in the jar are dirty is they are all coins we have found out in the world. Many were on the ground near parking meters, some were under vending machines, and a few were on the floor of the supermarket near the CoinStar machine. They have all been found since June 18, 2009. That was the day I walked by a few pennies on the ground and then wondered exactly how much money I was leaving laying around in a year. I vowed to pick up every coin I would ordinarily have passed by for a full year and add them up.
I told Erica and Isabel about my plan and enlisted their help. I also made what now appears to be a foolish bet with Erica. In those early, overly-optimistic days I thought we might be able to collect as much as $50.00 in a year. She thought fifty dollars was a wildly high guess. We bet a backrub. If I had slowed down even just a little I could have done the math and realized that a total of fifty dollars would require an average daily find of fifteen cents. It has been about one hundred days and we are averaging only 8.2 cents a day.
So, it looks like I will owe my lovely wife a backrub come next June. But in the meantime and much to my surprise this exercise is teaching me something valuable. And it doesn’t really have anything to do with coins.
Finding all this lost change requires focused attention on the world around me and a willingness to change course in response to what I observe. I am finding these very same skills really valuable to my teaching. This year is going well in my classroom and, (even though it may sound ridiculous), I partially attribute this success to my newfound hobby of coin collecting. In order to find change, I have to remind myself to look—to pay attention. Often I just walk without anything in mind but the destination. But now that I am looking for change, I have to remember to actually look for change. I have to exercise mental discipline.
The same is true in my daily classroom interactions with my students. In other years I have been so focused on the destination—the skill to be learned, the project to be completed, the work to be done—that I have blown right through some ripe opportunities to connect with my kids. Once I started shifting my focus from the horizon to my more immediate environment, I found a lot more coins. And once I lowered my gaze from the goal and focused more on the immediate messages my students were sending with their questions and their body language, the more I have felt able to really give them what they are needing.
I am giving more of myself to each interaction with my students and the payoff has been enormous. I am noticing more and learning more about them. I imagine they are feeling more seen, more recognized, and better cared for. There is a feeling in the room that hasn’t always been here in the past.
Don’t get me wrong—I have never been an uncaring, strictly-business sort of teacher. I like where I teach partly because of the administrative and parental expectation that I get to know my students well. What has made this year different is that I have gotten to know my students well AND I have realized that every interaction is a chance to get to know them even better. Every interaction every day is a chance to find something new about my students. I am no longer, (at least so far this year), leaving money on the ground. Once I began to see the value in those small moments, those minor revelations, and those tentative questions from my students it became clear to me just how immensely valuable all those pennies and nickels and dimes are in building real and authentic relationships with my kids. And that is worth far more than fifty dollars.