It has become almost cliche in education to say things such as "children are all good at heart" or "teenagers are looking for structure and guidance" or other such statements that make the basic point that most students are looking towards their adult mentors for some direction in life, even if they sometimes exhibit this reverence by ignoring our guidance, destroying the structure that we create for them, and exhibit something other than that innate goodness. Of course, a cynic would reply that these statements are all somewhat self-serving: Exxon-Mobil believes that gas is the best type of fuel, Steve Jobs does not understand why anyone would use evil Microsoft products, and teachers believe that they are absolutely essential in the lives of students.
Well, to warm your hearts, three recent cases with my students that showed that at least some of them truly want to do what is right.
1) We have been creating a ביאור תפילה class in Middle School, which now meets twice a week in 6th and 7th grade (with more to come!). Students learn the meaning of the words, some basic laws of davening, and some of the ideas behind what they say. The class also affords them an opportunity to ask questions about davening that may be on their minds. The other day, a mother came over to me and asked, and I quote, "What have you done with my daughter?" Apparently, her daughter's davening has noticeably improved over recent months, and when she pressed her daughter as to what had happened to bring about this welcome change, the girl, after much prodding, replied "ביאור תפילה"
2) I had a meeting scheduled during a teaching period. I entered my class, taught them for a few minutes, left them with an assignment to proceed on their own, and left the class. This is a small and motivated class that I can trust to not commit random acts of vandalism, but as they are 8th graders and it is now mid-May, I was not sure whether or not I should realistically expect the work to be done. As it turns out, the meeting was delayed, so I headed back to class with about 5 minutes left in the period. As I approached the room, I heard that the class was indeed learning in exactly the way I would have wanted them to. I remained outside the door, unseen by my students, and finally entered just before the bell to applaud and commend them.
3) Most amazing of all to me. A number of students crossed a line with me the other day and I asked them to remain inside during recess the next day (basically a מדה כנגד מדה consequence - they cost me class time, so I asked them to give me back some of their own time). As it turns out, the meeting that was delayed from item #2 was rescheduled to be during recess and I was thus not around to meet these students who I had asked to remain inside. Incredibly, most of them simply took it upon themselves to remain indoors. They understood what they had done, the consequence made sense to them, and thus they felt obliged to clear their own slates. Amazing.
Do such moments happen often in schools? Yes. The trick is to be able to put aside the countless demands on our time and attention, to get past what sometimes harries us, and to realize that, yes indeed, our students do want to do right, do want to impress us, and do want us to provide them with guidance and structure.