The most amazing thing happened recently in our classroom! In the fall we studied the life cycle of butterflies by observing the actual transformation from monarch caterpillar to butterfly. Excited students brought in other caterpillars they found and we watched them change as well. One swallowtail caterpillar, captured on an apple tree, made a chrysalis, but did not emerge as expected within the usual 10 - 14 day period. Assuming it had died, we left it in the container and placed it on a windowsill along with various moth cocoons that we knew would remain until spring.
Imagine our surprise when five months later the most beautiful butterfly we had ever seen appeared in the container! Our surprise quickly turned to concern as we realized that February in Colorado is not a time to release a butterfly outside. We prepared a suitable cage and equipped it with fresh flowers and sliced oranges, trying to make a habitat that would support the survival of our beautiful new friend.
As expected, the butterfly lived only a little more than a week. Its passing was a sad moment for the students, but a real lesson about life for all. I learned another lesson as I reflected on the experience.
Children, like butterflies, come in all shapes and sizes. Most develop as expected, "emerging" from their chrysalises at expected ages and stages of their lives. Some do not. The butterfly that appeared five months late in our classroom was no less magnificent than if it had made its entrance to life in September. It was, in fact, even more special because it surprised us by achieving its potential when we had lost all hope. There was nothing wrong with our butterfly, it only needed more time than others like it. Children are like that sometimes. Each individual child will develop in his or her own time. We must not give up on a child that seems to fall behind.
In this time of high stakes testing, the need to make sure all students achieve within the expected timeframe can cause us to push a bit too hard at times as well. Awhile back, a friend of mine in another city posted a video on Facebook of a butterfly pupa that had not hatched as expected in her classroom. She dissected the pupa for her students, only to discover, much to her surprise, that it was still alive and not fully formed. Although the "teachable moment" was amusing to watch, it was also a bit horrifying and tragic as the tiny creature was pushed into the next stage of life way too soon. It did not survive. Perhaps our students can be pushed too quickly as well. That is not to say we should not provide extra support to help them on their developmental journey, but we need, as educators, to also respect their unique and individual timelines and allow them to develop. To push too hard for results they are not ready to achieve may result in failures they cannot overcome.
One of the most difficult decisions concerning our recent butterfly was whether it would be better to release it outside on a warm afternoon for a few hours of freedom, knowing it would die that night, or to create a safe place where it had the opportunity to live longer in captivity. I don't know which was the correct choice as I have never been a butterfly, but we chose what we thought was best for our tiny friend.
So it is with students at times. We have to make choices about how we will guide their lives at school. Hopefully, we make choices that provide them with opportunities to flourish and grow. As a teacher, the most joyous moments are those in which a struggling student makes a surprise appearance from his or her chrysalis, to achieve something previously thought too difficult. That is why I teach.