I had a moment, not too long ago, where a student said to his mom, “I love this school! We did this great experiment in science with light bulbs and I had a great day!” You may have heard from a teacher or two about one of those special moments that make them proud of their students. Those moments when a kid finally understands the material or makes the connection. That was the moment for me.
You may think, “What’s the big deal? So, the kid likes the school, he didn’t even mention you specifically. What’s the big deal?” This is fair to ask, but it wasn’t about the science experiment with parallel and series circuits that was important to me. It was that he clearly stated, “I love this school,” something I would have never said in the sixth grade myself.
I don’t remember seeing my teachers having any of those pride moments. I don’t remember ever experiencing that when I was in sixth grade myself. I remember being in a public school that mainly cared about test scores and viewed me as a liability. I didn’t like to go to school. I tolerated it because of my friends, and if I did have an “ah-ha” moment there was no praise, it was more of a dismissive, “Oh good, you finally got it.”
I’m a second-year LV at San Miguel School in Chicago, Illinois, as the sixth-grade language arts teacher. I think that my student saying “I love this school” shows that my growth as a teacher is beginning to fulfill San Miguel’s mission to serve underserved students in Back of the Yards by inspiring hearts and touching minds. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and I believe that San Miguel provides the structure for that village in South Side Chicago.
When I began teaching last year, students came in with low grades in math and reading, and some came in with behavioral issues. Managing behavioral issues is what I focused on my first year.
It wasn’t until the beginning of this year, emphasized by the rapid end to school last year, that I began to realize how much I wanted—no, needed—to change as a teacher regarding my relationship with students. I was falling back on the philosophy that you can always be more relaxed with students once establishing extremely rigid rules. Though setting expectations is important for mutual respect, my students already had experience with being singled out by teachers for behavioral issues in the past. Thus, giving them these rigid rules led to an unhealthy power dynamic. I reflected on my last year of teaching and found that I would not have received any credit in the “I love this school” statement. Some of my students may have even said something like, “Mr. Walton is kind of a buzzkill.” I realized that last year I had been quite impatient and not as connected as I needed to be with my students. There is a famous quote that has come up in many education circles by the famous Rita Pierson that states, “Kids don’t learn from teachers they don’t like.” In my effort to survive as a first-year teacher, I fell victim to the results of not being “liked.”
I needed to grow and be more social with the students. I needed them to see that I wasn’t just another one of those English teachers that would give them a “passing grade” in order to get them out of their classroom. In other words, I tried to be the teacher I would have wanted in the sixth grade.
When I realized this, I had one of those “ah-ha!” moments. I would have wanted a teacher that understood what my Individualized Education Program (IEP) meant and how it wasn’t that I was “distracted” but that I just needed more time. I began to implement this with my students this year, and I have found that it has been really powerful not only in how they view and learn from me, but also how they embrace classroom camaraderie. I have been actively working on this by taking time to explain why I have an expectation before giving them the expectations I had. Not only explaining why, but also telling them that why is because I care about them.
One common example is after lunch and recess. The sixth graders come in, they are hot and tired from running around and diving for volleyballs and trying to block soccer shots, and during the reading period, some students will lay their warm foreheads down on their cool desktops. Last year’s reaction would have been direct and minimal. “Hey (student’s name here) lift up your head.” That would be it, and two minutes later, they would do it again because my words were minimal. I’ve gotten into the habit of leading with a question of “Are you ok?” Often, the answer is yes. When it is, I take a moment to tell them how I feel, “Good. When you had your head down, it made me think you were not doing okay, could you please keep your head up so I know you are okay?” This has been far more effective in keeping the students engaged even when they are tired. Since I’ve already established that I am paying attention to them because I care about them, they are able to check themselves more easily because they can clearly see their behavioral shift as well. It also has shown a decrease in awkward forehead imprints, which I figure they will appreciate later.
This is directly connected to San Miguel’s mission. In order for us to touch minds, we must first inspire hearts. In connecting with my students personally, I found that engaging them with more compassionate measures has helped their concentration and overall awareness. This helps me to “touch their minds” as the San Miguel mission statement puts it.
San Miguel Chicago has given me an opportunity to grow as a teacher and learn that I needed to connect more personally to my students so I may help them more academically. I value not only the fact that I am able to learn this through the lens of the Lasallian philosophy, but also that my students are able to receive this kind of attention both socially and in the classroom. I look forward to continuing in my work as a member of the San Miguel Chicago family, a language arts teacher, and as a Lasallian.
Daniel Walton is a second-year volunteer serving at San Miguel School in Chicago, Illinois, as a sixth-grade language arts teacher. He is a 2019 graduate of Saint Mary’s College of California in Moraga with a degree in English. He is also a 2015 graduate of Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento, California.