One of the things I worried about most beginning my year at San Miguel was how I was going to build relationships with my students. After ten days of orientation where we were drilled on things like well-advertised side hugs and the short attention spans of middle schoolers (one minute per year of age), I was overwhelmed. I wasn’t sure I could handle not smiling until Christmas, and while I understood “You are not their friend”, I still wanted my students to like me. This highlighted the growing anxiety of “what if they don’t?” Could I handle that possibility? What if I wasn’t cut out for it and the year descended into some kind of war with my students? The thoughts plagued me as we went into our beginning of the year staff meetings and discussed our policies on Love and Logic, behavior logs, and in school suspensions. As a first year teacher with limited experience, I was terrified.
To say that these fears were put to rest would be asking for a miracle. The first few weeks came with lack of cooperation, awkward conversations, and far too many and too personal questions from my students. As a young teacher worried about how I was going to define myself as some kind of authority, I struggled with these questions and instead chose deliberately not to answer many of them. In addition, the students who remembered past LVs were quick to throw out their opinions on whether or not I matched up to my predecessors; more often than not, I didn’t. For those who hadn’t had experience with LVs before, I was compared to any number of the experienced educators I had the privilege of being on staff with, often meeting the same falling short of expectation. While I didn’t give up hope, I was beginning to think I might not be one of those teachers who managed to both maintain a good classroom and have good, fun relationships with their students. I sure of one thing, and that was that I didn’t top any of my students’ list of favorite teachers.
Then volleyball happened. Just a week before practices were supposed to start and two weeks before the season, I was approached with helping to coach the newly forming girls’ volleyball team at our school. While I knew nothing about volleyball or coaching it, I jumped into the experience and prepared myself for the long haul of being part of a team that didn’t have a net the first two weeks of practice. Among these challenges, however, I found myself getting to spend more time with my students in a non-academic setting. The four or five students who stayed each day after school before games became a family of sorts as we gathered in my classroom after school, ate pizza, and listened to music.
It was in these moments that a transformation began to happen. Now, instead of trying to strike up awkward conversations in the cafeteria line while I served lunch, I had students coming up to me each day to ask if we had practice, if they had a ride to the game that night, and if I remembered Mr. Chavez dancing to Maroon 5. Somewhere over the course of volleyball season, I found myself worrying less about how to make my students like me and instead began enjoying more the moments of connection as they came naturally. Even while it was impossible to completely give up those fears, it became easier to face those moments where they were tested because of the positive moments elsewhere.
Volleyball became a valuable experience in that it helped me learn how to relate with my students in a way that let relationships naturally progress. The students wanted to get to know us because by opening up to them we could show them that we were in this for more than just a stepping-stone to the next thing. I learned that there is an important distinction between not over-sharing and keeping yourself closed off from your students, and that as teachers it is important to navigate that distinction or you risk alienating your students and putting up a wall between yourself and them.
Where my insistence on not giving information for fear of them taking that as wanting to be their ‘friend’ had created a disconnect, I am now learning that sometimes those shared experiences can provide a valuable link between teacher and student. Yes, it is okay to admit to listening to certain kinds of music if it means using it to get pumped before volleyball games, and it might just be valuable to use a shared knowledge of the Percy Jackson series to provide a stepping stone for understanding the full humanity and full divinity of Jesus Christ. Without being willing to share and give of myself, these moments and connections never would have happened.
As I try to figure out a way to close this blog post, all I can think back on is the half an hour it took to be able to leave San Miguel when my fellow LV and I were heading out for Christmas break on Friday. With a constant flow of students stopping you to tell you goodbye, that they were going to miss you, or that “two weeks is a really long time, Ms. Marsh” the outpouring of love was tangible even beyond the hugs. I think the common biblical adage “Do not be afraid” is something I should have paid more attention to. I came in afraid of how I would connect, and as I move forward in this year I realize the more you hold onto those fears, the greater chance you have of missing out on something truly special. The kids at San Miguel are indeed something truly special, and I look forward to having five more months to get to know them even better.
Heather Marsh is a 1st year LV serving at San Miguel School in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a 2014 graduate of Saint Mary’s College of California.