When I was a first-year English teacher 17 years ago, I thought my job was to teach the literature I loved. I believed that if I shared my love for The Call of the Wild, my students would love it as much as I do, and many did. Some, however, didn’t. There were heads down on desks, and failing grades showed up on report cards. Looking back on that year, I cringe. I put the book before my students. Now, my priorities have shifted.
Now, I observe.
His eyes are up more than down. Her eyes look to her lap where her phone is hidden. When I ask students to mark their spots, I note who shuts their book without a marked page. Two boys don’t lift their pencils during the first quickwrite. Another doesn’t even open her notebook when asked to. I watch this all without saying a word, and store it away for conferences.
Now, I comfort.
Frustration and anxiety appear on faces. I smile. I take out my pencil and write too. I share my mistakes. When I see a boy’s head in his hands, I kneel down to quietly share some suggestions to get started. This notebook is for mistakes. It’s where we can take risks, I say. I’m an awful speller, he replies. I reassure him that spelling doesn’t count here. This is where he has the freedom to explore. No need to worry about perfection.
Now, I listen.
Miss? I came to get that book, remember? The boy’s hands shake as he sits down and looks up at me as I get the book he requested. Can I tell you something? he asks me nervously. I immediately sit next to him to confirm. I’m not a good reader. My last school told me I read like a 4th grader, and my Lexile is too low for an 8th grader. My teachers and classmates mocked me. They told me I improved, but not enough. I can’t go through that again. I want to get better.
Now, I reassure.
You are not a level or Lexile, I reply. Don’t let those people define who you are. You are a reader, and I’ll help you realize that this year. He shares his frustration with staying focused and his concern that he’ll forget to read at home, and I share my recently-discovered love for audiobooks and the value in having reading partners. He states that his father would be a great reading partner. By the time he heads home, he has The Hate U Give and a reading plan.
Now, I create safe spaces.
Miss? Can you look this over for me and tell me what you think? She opens her Chromebook and I read about the night she told her parents she’s gay. Her father and uncle did not handle it well, and it hurt her deeply. She shared her pain and disbelief that they could feel this way about their flesh and blood. I admire you, I said. Thank you for sharing this piece with me. I can only hope that someday your family sees the incredible person that I do.
Now, I show my true self.
She enters my room after school, and immediately checks to make sure she’s the only one here. When her hope is confirmed, she walks over and sits down. Over the next hour, we share stories about the girl we both lost in an accident. A best friend and a mentee. A confidant and a budding artist. Tears are shed more than once as we watch a butterfly appear outside the window.
As the second week of school ends, more pencils are moving along the paper. Conversations revolve around writing topics, and more students openly share favorite lines. When I see these buds begin to emerge, I am reminded that this comes first. I don’t teach texts. I teach the amazing human beings that enter my classroom each day.
Sarah Krajewski teaches 9th and 11th grade English and Journalism at Cleveland Hill High School near Buffalo, New York. She is currently in her 17th year of teaching, and is always looking for new, creative ways to help her students enjoy learning, reading, and writing. At school, she is known for dedicating her time to helping students become lifelong readers, and for being a devoted reader herself who “knows her books.” At home, she is a proud wife and mother to three readers. You can follow Sarah on Twitter @shkrajewski and her blog can be viewed at https://skrajewski.wordpress.com.