My family moved during the summer between my fifth and sixth grade year.
That meant different surroundings. New friends. A new, traditional school that was WAY different than the Montessori-style school I had attended.
Going to a new school is bad enough, but being the new kid in sixth grade stinks. Trying to figure out your identity in sixth grade is hard enough. It’s that gray area between being a little kid and being a teenager, and you’re never quite sure which you are on a given day.
I struggled to figure out who my real friends were. As is common in middle school, some were my friends one day and felt like enemies the next day. I endured some bullying (name-calling, books knocked out of my hands, etc.). I didn’t really realize there was a “popular group” of kids until I moved to that school. (Maybe because there wasn’t one at my previous school? Maybe there was and I just didn’t notice it.)
It all ended just fine. I graduated in the top 10 of my class with great friends, my self-esteem intact and a direction for my future. It just wasn’t easy getting there.
As a teacher now, I don’t consciously think about it. On a subconscious level, though, I think those uncomfortable middle school years linger pretty much every day. They serve a purpose, though.
I want my students to feel comfortable, to feel appreciated, to feel noticed in my classroom.
It’s the passion that drives everything I do and the essence of who I am as a teacher.
I teach Spanish, and learning a foreign language can be challenging and uncomfortable. Learning new content in any class is a struggle, but it’s challenging when you can’t even say that new content using the standards of pronunciation you’re used to. Throw in trying to speak in Spanish in front of peers and there’s a reason so many people say, “I just can’t do foreign languages.”
It’s my goal to defeat that “Spanish isn’t my thing” mentality.
To do that, I study my students. I try my best to remember important happenings in their lives. More importantly, I try to bring those happenings up in conversation later in the year to prove that I really remembered them. (That’s tough, because my memory is really, really bad. Just ask my poor wife, who is VERY patient with me.)
I try to mitigate the mistakes that they make so they don’t get frustrated and shut down. I’m constantly trying to re-frame what they see as “the wrong answer” (or maybe “another example of why I’m wrong all the time”). I try to help them see it as “here’s how I know you’re making progress” or “this is why it was on the right track.”
I smile. I pat kids on the back. I tell them how impressed I am when they use a fancy vocabulary word or a tricky grammar concept.
Notice in most of those examples that I say, “I try.” I fail at helping my students feel comfortable, appreciated and noticed on a regular basis. I used to let that failure cripple me by getting that “another example of why I’m wrong all the time” mentality my students adopt at times. Now, I try to notice, embrace and learn from those failures and try to do better in the future. I’m constantly telling myself that I can only do the best that I can do in the hours I’m given to do it.
People think of me as a techie teacher, but I don’t do it for technology’s sake. (Although I do love a new, shiny gadget as much as the next guy!) I try to use those tools to draw out my students’ creativity and abilities. But I also use it to help them feel comfortable. Students who wouldn’t dare raise their hand to participate in a discussion will share in a backchannel conversation on TodaysMeet. Some express themselves best when they can sit down and compose their thoughts in a post on KidBlog.
Comfort isn’t everything. Some would argue that if you get too comfortable, you get stagnant or complacent. There’s some truth to that, but those high school years my students face can shape their identities as adults.
Their lives tend to be messy, complicated and stressful. I want my classroom to be a sanctuary where they feel they can be themselves.
I want my classroom to be the refuge I wish I had as the new kid in middle school.
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