Sunday, January 2, 2011

Fire and Spirit

I have not been teaching for a long time. To be specific, I'm in my 4th year of teaching bilingual students and only my second year of having my own classroom (before that I was doing resource). As I always try to, I have to give lots of love and mad props to anyone who teaches in a pull-out type scenario because I wouldn't trade the whole classroom experience for anything.

My experience on the day before winter break is an amazing testimonial as to why that's true for me:

Last year I had a beautiful student with a bit of a troubled soul. I certainly didn't recognize it right away, as she was always quiet and respectful, but it was there hiding under the surface ready to boil over. Apparently, the year before I had her, she missed a LOT of school. Then, with me things got better until we had a substitute. If she knew ahead of time that I would not be there, she was always absent and if she was surprised by a sub at the beginning of the day she would make an excuse about being sick and go home. Of course, this trend did not go unnoticed so I referred her to social work. Just as I had determined, however, the social worker found her to be pleasant and relatively happy and nothing really came from her visit there.

We moved on until one day something went terribly wrong. I got a call in to the office as soon as I dropped my students off at their special telling me that I was needed right away and that my little darling was in the office screaming and crying and doing her best to make her mom take her home. When I entered the office I couldn't believe what I was seeing. My lovely little child was "talkin' smack" to the principal telling her that she didn't know anything about her or care about her life and basically egging her on when she threatened to call the cops. It got to the point that I was so upset by the fact that I thought I had known this student and that she had clearly been harboring some strong anti-school feelings for so long, that I started to cry about my own failure as a teacher. Eventually my principal followed through, called the cops, and got her escorted back to class. She acted the same as she always did (scary!) and we moved on in the same way for the rest of the year.

Two weeks ago I got a call from the assistant principal at the middle school. Their sweet, though at this point struggling academically, little sixth grader was once again having an "episode." They described it to me and I explained that it had indeed happened once before. We talked for a long time about what I used to do with her, how she was successful in my classroom, and what we could do to motivate her. I was thanked for my time and left to deal with my own students while my former one was out there flailing about.

I felt like what I had done just wasn't enough. I sat down the next morning and wrote a letter to my former student explaining to her that her behavior scared the hell out of me (not in those exact words) and that she could always find support in me. I also reminded her that just because she was gone (from elementary school) didn't mean that I wasn't with her, thinking about her, checking up on her with her new bilingual teacher. And you know what, I thank God that I took the five minutes to sit down, write that letter, and send it through district mail to the middle school. Apparently she took it to heart.

On the last day before break, right after my students walked out the door, I got called down to the office. I walked in, was told that I had a visitor, turned around, and there she was! I screamed and hugged her about ten times and then I finally asked, "Oh my gosh, why are you here?!" to which she simply and emotionally replied, "Because you wrote and said to come visit you." My darling child read my words, BELIEVED them, made her mother drive her all the way to her old elementary school, and was standing before me ready to talk. It was one of the most amazing conversations of my life.

We talked about what she was struggling with, the long road ahead, and real solutions to make it better (because she won't be out of school any time soon!). She updated me on family life, my old students, and her new strategies on how she is working harder and doing better in school. I couldn't believe the transformation. I vowed then and there to write about 6 more letters (to students who she kindly ratted out about their middle school antics) and remind as many kids as possible that the caring doesn't just stop because the school year did.

This year I honestly don't have the same relationship with my students as I did last year. They don't have to struggle to stay united in the same way as my kids in the split class did. We had a special bond last year and I know (and my students know) that we aren't there yet. But I am going back into this new year (2011!) with a renewed fire and spirit. If I can create the same level of trust and support in just one of my new students, it will be worth everything.

Happy New Year!

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