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Teaching the Whole Child: The Only Goal That Matters

November 9, 2015

Master Teach Guest Blog Series – Part 1: All About the Kids

Post 5 of 5

As teachers, we know that students bring all sorts of wonderful things with them to the classroom: energy, enthusiasm, interest, and an inquisitive spirit, to name a few. Many students, however, are also burdened by the stressful reality of their lives, the trauma of which can overshadow their classroom interactions and drastically interfere with their learning.  

In today’s blog, Master Teacher Cassandra Joss describes her transformation into a teacher who carefully considers each student’s circumstance, aiming not just to teach but to teach the whole child. By shifting her goal, Cassandra ensures that her practice remains “All About the Kids.”

A teacher’s daily work extends far beyond simply teaching children. There are parents to email, papers to grade, assessments to give, meetings to attend, data to report, and the list goes on. Teaching can quickly become an overwhelming task, and for me, it was easy amidst the chaotic daily grind of a teacher, to sometimes lose sight of why I became one in the first place. I went into education because I have a deeply rooted compassion for children and the desire to be a positive influence on their lives. After years of teaching, however, that devotion had waned and I was left feeling adrift.

Eager to correct course, this past summer I began to reflect deeply on what matters most. Education has become obsessed with numbers and accountability, and that immense pressure on me has trickled down to my students. However, I knew that it’s not the grades, the papers, the data, the meetings, the lessons, or the assessments that are important.

I thought about my “Learning Target” board and decided my learning target from that day forward would be the well-being of my students. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I had somehow allowed myself to get caught up in all the extra “stuff” that doesn’t really matter in the end. I am happy to say I have found my path again.


My motto became: Teach the Whole Child. I began to think about my students who never turned in assignments, never had a snack or school supplies, and had extreme home or family experiences that nobody should have to endure. Why was I holding elementary-aged students responsible for things over which they had no control? Is it little Johnny’s fault that his mother won’t sign his reading log, or Dad won’t help him with his homework? Absolutely not! Yet I was penalizing students for missing reading logs and homework.

My definition of teaching the whole child means that in order for any learning to take place, I must first address the basic needs of my students, their poverty level, and their home and life experiences. All the other “stuff” doesn’t matter until these needs are met. Research has proven that when the brain is in fight or flight mode, it cannot physiologically take in new information.

How can I expect an eight-year-old to learn fractions when she hasn’t eaten, or she is scared because of a domestic dispute at home the previous evening? My job is to not only help students improve academically, but to instill a love of learning, and provide a safe, nurturing environment at school. If I don’t meet these basic needs, then anything else I try to do is meaningless.

My action plan this year has been to take control of what I can during a student’s day with me. I can control stress at school and assigning homework. I can also provide food and structure in a caring environment during the hours I am with students. My students will remember me not because I was the teacher that didn’t give out homework and had good snacks in her classroom, but because I was the teacher that made their well-being my number one priority.

Cassandra Joss is a Third Grade teacher in Utica Community Schools, located in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. In addition to serving as a member of the Common Core Leadership Cadre for the Michigan Education Association, she is a guest lecturer in math methods at Oakland University, and a member of BetterLesson’s Math Master Teacher Project. To see all of Cassandra’s Kindergarten math lessons, please click here.

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