12/14/2012 05:55 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2013

What Kids Need Most

Yesterday, I got a Facebook message from a student I taught 25 years ago, saying "Perhaps you don't remember what it is I need to apologize for, and as I grow older I cannot say that I remember very well myself, but I DO know that when I saw your name I felt a LOT of regret and quite a bit of shame."

I vaguely remember that some disciplinary matter came between us, and at the time her shame took the form of scorn and petulance, nothing special among adolescents, but she felt bad about it years later, enough to tell me she regretted what she'd done.

I also remember a teacher in high school whom I admired and treated rather shabbily. I still feel bad about it, 40 years later. For reasons I don't understand, it's like adolescent boys to behave in a way that runs directly counter to how they really feel.

We teachers tend to reward students who show us attention and admiration. I don't think that's unusual, or a necessarily a problem, but when we're treated with indifference or hostility, what do we do? Have those kids earned our care and attention? No. That's why and when we give it. Students often need what they least deserve.

Why would you give anyone what he or she doesn't deserve and doesn't expect? Because you love them for who they are, and for the painful struggle to become who they are. Because you can see further than they can.

It's not that kids shouldn't be held responsible for their actions, but they can't look far enough to know what they'll regret. They will push us away when they need us most. It's remarkable how unpleasant kids can make themselves at those times. They hide vulnerability and pain, masking need with bravura or aggression or rudeness. It's amazing how disarming (and effective) forgiveness and acceptance are, when not expected.

Teaching is collaborative engagement; the student isn't the problem, but a partner and an ally. The enemy is lack of faith. Kids are kids. They shouldn't be allowed to get away with things, but they should be forgiven for being kids.