Earl Wilson knew his first year of teaching in a new state wasn’t going to be easy. With the challenge of teaching his fourth-grade students both virtually and in person simultaneously, he hasn’t had a lot of free time on his hands.
“It’s made my workload twice as much because I have to plan for both,” Earl said. “But it made me a better teacher. It pushed me.”
One of the ways it pushed him was to look for creative ways to connect with his students, outside of the virtual environment. And that’s when he discovered the simple joy of an empty shoebox.
Shoeboxes can hold magic and wonder.
Early on in the school year, while everyone was still virtual, Earl looked for ways to improve rapport between him and his students. From his days of substitute teaching, he knew how incredibly important relationship building is for educators. Yet, virtual didn’t make it easy.
He brainstormed ideas, trying to think of something kids could do that would be universal and inexpensive. This was when he came up with the idea of making miniature mailboxes out of shoeboxes.
After students decorated their mailboxes, which Earl said was informative in and of itself to show kids’ personalities, the instructions were simple. Leave your mailbox outside of your apartment, front door, garage, or wherever else you want on your special day. Then Mr. Wilson might leave you a surprise.
“They put their shoeboxes in a safe space and would write to me to let me know where it would be,” Earl said. “It was fun for me. It was like an Easter egg hunt, looking for their hidden box. One student even put it under a car.”
Little treasures make big impacts.
With roughly 60 students (two classes of around 30 each), Wilson started using much of his free time to make special deliveries to his students. Before school, after school, over lunch, his planning period—all were quick opportunities to sneak off to a student’s home and leave them a little surprise.
“When people found out what I was doing, they were surprised I was using my own money and my own car to go and do this,” Earl said. “But it wasn’t too expensive, really, and then people started donating stuff. To me, it was a good gesture for the kids to see.”
Items included everything from keychains, posters, and a Rubik’s Cube to art items and even school supplies. It really depended on the individual student and what they were into. In addition, Earl tried to leave custom notes and words of encouragement to show his students he knew them on a more personal level.
“For instance, I know one of my students helps her mom a lot, so I just wrote her a note about how she should continue helping her mom,” Earl said. “They liked the fact that I knew who they are, and it helped them trust me more than anything.”
Keep the giving going.
Earl said teachers near and far have been reaching out to him because they’ve heard about what he’s doing.
“So many teachers that had lost their light reached out to me,” Earl said. “They said I made a difference to them. And I can see the impact it’s had on my kids and my whole community.”
Earl credits two important people in his life who have influenced his journey as an educator. First, is his third-grade teacher, who he remembers going the extra mile for her students. And then there’s his grandma, who tells Earl it’s his duty to look out for these kids and give back wherever he can.
Most of Earl’s students are now back to in-person learning. Now, he said, he plans to finish the school year out strong. One of his big goals now is to help his own students find ways to spread kindness to others. He knows they’ve experienced how it makes them feel, and he wants to encourage them to pay it forward.
While some people might look at Earl’s efforts and think it’s going above and beyond what his teacher duties are, he believes it’s worth it.
Earl said this about teaching, “It’s tiring and exhausting, and it takes a toll on you, but I would not trade it for anything in the world.”