As I walked into Mrs. Daniels classroom on that cold January morning I had many expectations in mind. I was prepared to spend the next 16 weeks learning teaching methods and classroom management styles to take with me to my own classroom someday. What I did not expect to learn was that teaching is not all about academics; it’s about connections. It’s about connecting with your students on a personal level, finding out how they tick, what makes them who they are. It’s about getting to know what is going on in their lives outside of the classroom walls. That’s the only way to know what they truly need, it’s the only way you can make a real difference in their lives.
My first impression of Michael was that he was what some would call a difficult child. He was a year older and a head taller than all of his classmates, he didn’t like to participate in lessons and when he did he would often give disruptive answers, on the playground he would often get frustrated and yell at his classmates when he wasn’t getting his way. While on recess duty during my third day, another teacher verbally disciplined him for throwing his snack on the ground in anger; when she was done she turned to me and whispered, “You’re going to have to watch that one, he’s trouble.” Her statement disturbed me in more ways than one. First, because at 7 years old, Michael had already been labeled as trouble, and secondly, I knew that this label would probably follow him grade by grade for his entire academic career.
During our lunch break that day I approached the situation with Mrs. Daniels, telling her both what I saw Michael do and what the other teacher had said. I expected her to reacted in anger and frustration, but I sighed when a look of sadness passed over her face instead.
“Michael is a special case,” she said, “I know he can seem like trouble but once you get to know him and his story you will see there’s a lot more to him than that.”
It turned out that Michael had repeated first grade not because he could not do the work, but because during kindergarten and his first year in first grade he had changed schools multiple times and had not been able to gain the skills he needed in order to successfully move up. He had problems with authority not because he was simply defiant, but because he had been uprooted time and time again by his mom, who was now incarcerated, and was now living with his father who he had barely known 6 months prior. He didn’t trust the adults in his life to stay put. He held a lot of sadness and anger inside; he was insecure and wanted to be liked by his peers so he often acted out to present himself as the class clown, he wanted to be a leader but he had issues with conflict resolution when solving problems that came up with the other kids.
The more Mrs. Daniels talked, the more my heart melted toward Michael, my soul ached for him. His situation saddened me to my inner core, but what was worse was the knowledge that he was not the only child dealing with a similar situation. I knew the chances were high of a child with a story just like Michael’s walking into my own classroom some day, and I was determined not to let that child fall through the cracks.
Throughout the semester I watched Mrs. Daniels and Michael interact. I watched how she took the time to talk to him one on one, made a point to use positive reinforcement with him every chance she got, and was both consistent and gentle with her discipline when he did act out. She gradually challenged his conflict resolution skills by putting him in groups with kids that he might not see eye to eye with, but was always there for support when needed. I watched and tried to implement these things myself as I was given more responsibility in the classroom. It wasn’t long before Michael started to trust me and became enjoyable during class. Yes, he still had his moments, but all kids do.
At the end of the year I sat with Mrs. Daniels as she filled out student evaluations to send to their new teachers, telling them about the students’ quirks, their likes, dislikes, and things they might experience when they had them as a student. As I read what she put on each child’s card I couldn’t help but laugh, she knew them each so well and was able to capture their entire essence in only a few sentences each. On Michael’s she wrote, ‘He’s a good kid, he just needs someone with patience and who is willing to listen to and love him.’
I don’t know if the school took Mrs. Daniel’s words about Michael into consideration, I don’t know if his 2nd grade teacher took the time to get to know him and give him a fighting chance like Mrs. Daniels did. What I do know is that she did everything she could do to give him a solid foundation to stand on. She not only taught him the academics he needed, but life skills that he will use forever. She gave him a chance and refused to cast him away based on first impressions or negative experiences. She made a connection; she chose to get to the root of the problem.
I learned a lot of things while I was completing my student teaching, but hands down the most important thing I learned was that each of my students deserved the same chance as their peers. Sometimes life’s circumstances do not give them those chances, but we as teachers can do our part to bridge that gap. We hold in our hands the tools to give our students a solid foundation and an excellent future, both academically and otherwise. We have to stop and look, we have to see their potential. We have to connect.