Almost a year ago, I published a post about teaching and love (http://www.maestrateacher.com/blog/teaching-and-love). As the month of March continues to test teachers’ patience, and parents also struggle to maintain their calm, this topic is on my mind again.
Our kids drive us crazy, test our limits, scream, whine, demand, and do things they are not supposed to do - even the best of kids. Even so, we keep loving them. In fact, I find that my love for my children grows each time we jump a hurdle of difficulty.
The same goes for my students. We have our challenging days: those days where I am too tired to be engaging or they are too tired to be engaged; the days where something is going on in their lives that is distracting them and not allowing them to be fully present. We get through those days, and afterwards we are usually closer and stronger for it. Teachers forgive students their bad behavior, and most I know have a great deal of empathy. And they are capable of moving on after students mess up. We know that everyone deserves not only a second, but a third, fourth, and even a fifth (or more) chance. We also know, especially in middle school, that students will test our limits often, just like our own kids.
When I taught Spanish, and had larger classes and more behavior challenges together in one room, I probably spent about 60% of my time on classroom management. Spanish was seen as the “fun” class, and friends who never had classes together because of our team structure didn’t see one another all day until they got to Spanish. Also, students with different learning issues were often steered towards Spanish as their language choice in middle school - out of 6 languages we offered when I began - because it was the “easiest”. So, my classes were at times challenging, and they sometimes exasperated me. At times, students would ask me if I hated them. I was always a little shocked by that question. I would say to them, “Of course not! I love you all. Are you annoying me right now? Yes. But I cannot imagine any teacher ever HATING a student - if that happens, that person maybe should not be a teacher anymore.”
I’m not sure if they 100% believed me, but I meant my words. My son’s second grade teacher (hey Lauren!), at the beginning of the year she had him in class, said to me, “I have to find great things in each one of these kids so that I can love them all” - it was her personal mission as a teacher. At our parent conference, she told me, very frankly, that she hadn’t found that yet in my son (I was not offended). I can’t remember to what it was due, but a few months later, at an informal check-in, she told me that she had finally found it! Something to make her love my son. And she did.
Just as with our students, I believe we have to love our own kids as they are - faults and all. Only then can they, and our students, begin to trust us to guide them and help take them to the next level.
March. In public schools it's the worst month. It's go go go from the first day, we have state-mandated testing, kids are getting spring fever, and we have to "spring forward", causing a week of everyone in school being slightly off, either too sleepy or overly hyper. On top of that, in Massachusetts we have the false illusion that spring is coming, and in fact, it can feel that way - 75 degrees and sunny one day, blustery and cold and the threat of a snowstorm the next. April vacation is nowhere in sight. You have spring cleaning fever but no time to do it.
Luckily, I work with the best people ever. Some of these people took it upon themselves to Make March Better by coming up with silly themed days. On "Finger Mustache Day" we were invited to put fake tattoo mustaches on our index fingers. The students were more than a little confused when teachers kept putting their index fingers over their lips and showed polka dot mustaches, striped mustaches, curly mustaches, and even red mustaches.
They also organized a "Loud" Day, and were encouraged to wear that loud piece of clothing you have in your closet and never had the occasion to wear. We saw lots of funny and awesome combinations that day, again vaguely confusing the students who were half paying attention.
On the Monday after springing forward (last Monday), we were blessed with what was basically a keg of hot coffee. It was just what we needed to help us through the day.
With 2 weeks to go of this month, I can't wait to see what my colleagues have in mind to keep our spirits up.
Another awesome colleague, Patrick, organized a spring after school celebration at his house. Just a time to chill together, relax, get over the week, and laugh about teacher things. This is the third time he's opened up his house to us; everyone is invited, and everyone is made to feel at home.
Thanks to my wonderful colleagues, March IS better. And our community is stronger. Our job isn't easy; we need each other to lean on so we can be there for our kids to lean on.
Last fall at the Western Mass. Writing Project's Best Practices conference at UMass Amherst, I delivered the keynote speech over lunch. You can find it here:
I wanted to give a quick update on the very special student I spoke of in this keynote. Today, I was at the high school for a meeting, and afterwards I saw her in the hallway. I called out her name and she came over to me and hugged me. She looked confident, happy, and gorgeous. She arrived in this country almost exactly 3 years ago, and you would barely know it by her English now. She speaks as if she's been here more like 10 years.
She reminded me that she is now a Junior and only had one year left. Then what she said touched me: "I always remember what you said to me in 8th grade. You said, 'I will be there in 4 years to watch you graduate.' I never forgot that." And I told her that I was still planning on it.
It goes to show you, you never know which words that you say to your students are the ones that will have the largest impact. Sometimes we feel like what we say falls on deaf ears, and maybe sometimes it does - but some student somewhere remembers something that you said to him or her.
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This week we began the 5th in a series of readings about groups of Native Americans across America before Columbus. When I asked the students, purely as review (since we had spent several classes talking about this last month) when Columbus came to the Americas, they started shouting out random numbers ("disparates", as we say in Spanish- nonsense). "20!" shouted one. "40" yelled another. "No - it's more like 100!!" said yet another.
I tried to not feel discouraged. Hadn't we just talked about this? And I had drawn the timeline on the board to show them the sequence of events, and then we had to take another step back to talk about the year 0 and adding on the years before, and so on. I thought they now had it in their heads; I was really wrong.
So, I re-drew the timeline on the board again, realizing that 1) I should have left it up in the first place so we could refer back to it many times and 2) it was partially my fault for not reviewing it with them.
More importantly, it was a reminder to me that I teach a mostly SLIFE population. SLIFE students are Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Schooling. Their families may have moved around a lot. Or, it's possible they couldn't attend school regularly because of the cost of uniforms or books. Perhaps the students could not go to school because of violence in their countries, whether war or gangs/crime. Because of their circumstances, SLIFE students tend to have large gaps in their academic knowledge, and sometimes don't know what we consider basics, such as holding a pencil, writing on a line, sitting in a chair, or raising their hands.
Within SLIFE, there can be a huge range as well. Just in my class, I have one student who was reading and writing at a 1st or 2nd grade level. Luckily, with an amazing one on one bilingual tutor, he is making progress. As far as my other students, their gaps are smaller but definitely evident. For 2 it has to do with moving around and during one of those moves, being in a large urban school system that didn't seem to pay much attention to whether they were making progress or not. For 2 others, their country has short school days and the instruction was probably 2 years or so behind their U.S. grade level. And for one student, I'm not sure yet. She remains a puzzle. I know that she lived in the country side, that her home is suffering from war and violence, and that her school language was already her second language, and she never became fully proficient in that. She will not talk about her home country and almost never asks for help.
Luckily, we live in a town that provides great services to our students. We have an amazing family center, we have interpreters for our beginner ELL students, and my ELL colleague and I are able to adjust the curriculum to their needs while pushing our students to gain content knowledge as well as English. Also, we have a relatively small ELL population compared to some districts.
Still, this is an area we need to learn more about. Our district leaders should start paying attention and educating themselves and our faculty about this population of students, which is growing all over the U.S.
All of our students are complex and unique individuals. SLIFE students have a few extra layers of complexity. If you're interested in learning more, one of my go-to websites is Colorin Colorado. Here is the link to their page about SLIFE students:
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