This is a guest post by Mellissa Frangias.
It is the last day of school before summer, and there is a mixture of emotions floating through the hallways. The walls of the classroom are now bare and have been stripped of all student work. Goodbyes are never easy.
One of my students, a big-hearted teddy-bear 5th grader, cannot stop crying. At home, he takes care of his rather large family. He has told me that school is a place for him to take care of himself. It is a place to learn and not have to worry about feeding and babysitting his siblings while his mother is away at work. Over 80% of the students at the school where I work receive free or reduced-priced lunch. Roughly speaking, that translates to over 80% of the students living at or below the poverty level. Like him, many students see school as a place to be a kid—to grow up and become who they are.
I’ve been told that you will never forget your first group of students. In all, I had 28 extraordinary 5th– and 6th-grade students, such as the 5th-grade girl who excelled in everything she did, so that by the end of the year she joined the 6th-grade math class. Or the boy who at the start of the year hated school. I couldn’t get him to write more than a paragraph, but by the end of the year he could write 2–3 pages. More important, he overcame a huge transformation that his mother shared with me: he began to want to do well in school. There was also the 5th-grade teddy bear, who in previous years was told by his teachers to stick up for himself. This year, he not only stuck up for himself, but he made it onto student council and began advocating not only for himself but also for his peers. These students came from a variety of cultural, socioeconomic, and educational backgrounds. Yet, by the end of the year, we grew alongside one another—celebrating one another’s strengths as well as weaknesses.
As a teacher in my district, we hear all the time about the power of getting to know our students. The district’s motto had a huge impact on attracting me to the school: “Knowing every student by name, strength, and need.” As a first-year teacher, this was a wonderful motto to live by. I made it a priority to get to know ALL my students. Through this, I quickly began to realize the power and control that students had over their own learning. My strongest lessons were those that were unplanned and controlled by the students.
One of the most memorable moments of my first year came after my frustration with a particular student who would always disrupt class time by shouting out and interrupting his peers. Throughout the year, we bumped heads on numerous occasions. From day one, I knew he was a natural leader. His peers all looked up to him; right or wrong, they always followed his lead. Yet, he had a huge problem with authority and would always push the limits, especially outside of the classroom. One day in class, after multiple disruptions, I snapped, “You’re coming in here for lunch recess!” He sat back angrily. I knew the moment after I said it that I was feeding into his dislike of authority and teachers. I knew I had to fix this, but I also knew I needed to keep my foot down. This student excelled in math—how could I possibly use this to my advantage? As he walked in during lunch recess, I asked him to grab a calculator and to meet me by our daily schedule. Together, we calculated all the time that was lost in transitioning throughout the day. When we finally arrived at a number, we multiplied that to determine how much time was lost during a week, a month, and then a year. His jaw dropped to the floor, and he said to me, “And that doesn’t even count all the times you have to wait for us to settle down!” With a sigh of relief, I gave him the last five minutes of his recess. After recess, as I was waiting for the students to settle in to their desks, I noticed him staring at the clock to determine how much time it was taking. He walked up to my desk and asked, “Can I share with the class what we calculated during recess?” For the next 15 minutes, this student took control of the classroom. The rest of the class was engaged, listening to him speak, helping him to recalculate the numbers, and immersed in a powerful conversation about our learning time.
The reason I became a teacher is simple. The vignettes above highlight the reasons I became, and continue to want to be, a teacher. It’s not because of summer breaks, teaching state standards, or even sharing my love of school with my students. It is learning alongside my students, failing and picking myself back up, building community, and most of all, obtaining that feeling you get when you learn that you really can empower your students.
As I look to the future, I know I will never forget my first group of students. But I am also excited for my journey next year. Although I will not be teaching a 5th-/6th-grade split, I have transferred over to the dual-language track, where I will be teaching math and literacy to approximately fifty 6th-grade students. In an effort to bring together the students from both the dual-language and general education tracks, we will be dedicating a segment of our Fridays to integrate both tracks with community-building activities, such as group art projects and traditions. One wish I have for the 2016–2017 school year is to establish a family night art exhibition and silent auction where students and families can celebrate art, culture, and community.
I was gratified by the speech given by one of my 5th-grade students on our last day of school:
“Thank you for your attention. The time has come where we will separate from one another. This year has been the best year yet, and I have many things I regret not doing. We had many arguments and tough times, but we got through it together. We are like a family, and it will never change. We started off as nomads and we ended as individual strong people. We did not just learn school-like subjects here, we learned emotions, friendship, and most of all, the meaning of family. Don’t be sad, be happy. This is just the beginning of a new journey. It’s a new journey, make a change. We will be forever remembered in each other.”
I’m looking forward to another fabulous year!
Mellissa Frangias is a 6th-grade teacher entering her second year of teaching at a school just outside of Seattle. Her background in photography and fine art allow her to bring her joy of art into the classroom.