A new student came to our school about 3 weeks ago for English testing. he was to be placed in 8th grade, yet he was smaller than my 10 year old daughter. He has just arrived from a Central American country and was rejoining his family here. When I asked him questions in English, he stared at me with huge eyes, without any idea how to answer me. Luckily his 2 ELL teachers speak Spanish and we can help ease his transition to school here and to learning English. Now, his eyes light up and he grins when I ask him how things are going.
He is an example of the resilience I see every day in my students. He may have had a terror-filled trip to Massachusetts; he may have seen unfathomable acts of violence in his country. Yet, he still smiles and is excited to be here. His schooling was most likely very irregular and there were probably gaps. Like many of my students, he might be separated from loved ones, even one of his parents. Yet, he looks happy as can be sitting in my classroom, dutifully taking notes in a language he does not yet understand. He was probably the victim of malnutrition, considering his tiny stature. In his very traditional, patriarchal community there tends to be a lot of domestic violence and drinking. Yet he comes to school every day, pushing himself into a zone of discomfort in order to learn.
Students like him inspire me. Our students are multi-layered, complex people who bring with them their experiences, their fears and anxieties, their drama, and their hopes. As teachers, it is not only our job to teach them; I think it is also our job to help them build the personal skills they will need in life. We have to go beyond - we see their smiles, but we have to ask what is going on behind their smiles.
I am lucky that I have such small numbers of students and I can get to know them well. Every teacher can do his or her part, though. At my school, teachers are building getting to know you activities into their first month of teaching. I noticed a high level of attention to the emotional and personal aspects of teaching this year in all the classrooms I was in. Many teachers had students write letters to them, and a few teachers shared information from their lives with their students. No longer is the classroom a place where you should not "let them see you smile before Christmas!" , but it is a place where more and more teachers are attending to the social and emotional well-being of our students. Thank God for that!
When I see the smiling face of my new student tomorrow, I will be comforted in the fact that I have helped create a classroom where he can feel safe, happy, and where he is learning. At the end of the day, nothing else at my school matters as much as the students.