No Child Left Behind and The Importance of Student Relationships

Image Above: A Mural of the late Tejana Singer Selena Quintanilla in San Antonio, Texas. I tutored at Burbank Public High School from 2012-2013. Photo by Flickr user John Fisch

President Obama recently made headlines, saying that before leaving office, the Department of Education is to start phasing out President Bush’s 2002 “No Child Left Behind” Act.

The act mandated yearly math and reading tests to ensure proficiency, but states were falling behind. The Department of Education is to only offer “high-quality” tests and to minimize test taking to only 2% of class time.

This shift from standardized testing to focusing on student relationships reminds me of my “Philosophy of Teaching” Reflection I wrote before teaching English in Nicaragua:

August, 2014.

How do I feel about being a TEFL teacher in Nicaragua? I chose teaching because I enjoy being challenged and I enjoy inspiring others to take ownership of their learning. As the daughter of working-class Mexican immigrants, I was privileged enough to grow up in a household that fostered a safe learning environment. My parents never stopped stressing the importance of learning, and we would often spend weeknights watching educational programming on PBS and on the Discovery Channel. I have fond memories of learning about the human body’s resilience in fighting viruses and about just how dangerous it would be for an astronaut to take off their helmet on Pluto, thanks to “The Magic School Bus”.

Looking back, it just made the most sense for me to become an educator later on. Being a teacher fits my identity as an intellectually curious Latina Woman, because from an early age, I was empowered with the idea that I could go anywhere I wanted to in life, as long as I retained my thirst for learning. In order to grow as a fair, inspiring teacher, I will continue to focus on my abilities as an authoritative, clear, and consistent educator.

While I appreciate my upbringing now, I took it for granted most of my life. I tutored at-risk high schoolers with City Year in the working-class, Latin@ southside in racially segregated San Antonio, Texas.

Then, I realized that although my family did not have much money, I was very lucky to grow up with a love of learning.

Many of my high schoolers didn’t live in households that promoted learning in safe ways. My students were more occupied with maybe eating breakfast and helping raise their siblings, instead of focusing on how to pass standardized tests that held few real-world implications for them. It makes sense.

Several of them were homeless, had parents in jail, and lived off of unhealthy meals. I remember asking one of my students, Lisa, who always wore bright red lipstick and a bright red jacket, who she was writing a letter to in class. “I’m writing to my dad. He’s in jail”, she said, her eyes downcast, but with a matter-a-fact tone. Who could blame her for eating hot cheetos first thing in the morning? It was the cheapest, most satisfying snack she could find.

This public health issue of denying students their basic nutrition could not be blamed on anyone in particular, but I knew it was wrong.

Working in San Antonio Public Schools taught me that education is also a public health issue.
Eating a cheap, satisfying meal when your dad’s in jail? Or focusing on passing standardized tests that mean little to you at the moment? 

I could not control the environment they went home to at night, but realized that I could control my relationships with them.

As I’ve worked in education, I’ve realized that building trust in my students is the priority. I’ve learned to capitalize on my influence within the classroom. A classroom is a students’ second home, and students must be made to feel safe enough in this home to learn. Without buy-in from students, very little learning can be done. Only the self-motivated students will succeed if the teacher depends on them to initiate teacher-student relationships. As a teacher, I have grown increasingly conscious of my area of influence and I have become proactive in building my students’ trust. Not all students have the skills and confidence needed to build relationships with adults, therefore I must consistently model these skills for them. They will adopt these characteristics in time.

I have spend hundreds of hours with my students in Boston, and I know exactly when they are focused on their work, or when they are having a rough day. In Nicaragua, I must be aware of how my students are feeling and how I can best support them in order to achieve the most learning. Students have responded best when they receive private redirections and when I have calmly asked them to step outside of the classroom to discuss any negative behaviors.

The biggest mistake I made as a novice teacher was to make all redirections public, and to only approach students when they were not following directions. Now, I have seen drastic improvements in my students’ behavior after observing other positive teacher-student relationships in my school. Students are open to redirections, as long as a. they’re done respectfully and b. the teacher follows through with positive feedback throughout the school year. I will avoid any redirections that will make my students feel embarrassed and unsafe in the classroom. Every student matters, and I will never avoid or embarrass any of my students. If they are present in the classroom, that means that they care enough about their education. I will assume the best of my students, and I will provide a safe learning environment by making my expectations clear from the start.

When adapting and setting my classroom expectations in Nicaragua, I will turn to my teaching toolkit. A main component of this toolkit will be composed of notes on teacher observations. As a newcomer to the school, I must be proactive in observing the teachers’ relationships with students, as well as their classroom management styles. My counterpart will be an especially helpful resource to as I learn to navigate the culture of my school in Nicaragua. How do teachers build relationships with students outside of the classroom? How consistent are teacher to parent relationships? What do students respond well to in terms of trusting adults? How clear are teachers in setting their expectations? These are questions that I will ask myself when I arrive, and I will continue to push for answers from other teachers, not just from my counterpart. I will also continue to welcome feedback from my counterpart in terms of my own classroom management and how to best build relationships with my students.

Teaching English in Nicaragua will be challenging without a doubt, but that is why I’m doing this work in the first place.

Teaching is an art form that can never be perfected. There are so many aspects to teaching that can affect how students learn and how they respond to teachers. While a teacher can be completely authoritative after having built trust, they must always think of new ways to be clear and consistent educators.

There is no such thing as a “perfect teaching style”, but my job is to consistently strive to improve and maintain a positive outlook. By being self-aware, reflective, and seeking feedback from my counterpart and fellow teachers, I will be on the right path to making a difference in students’ lives.

By building their trust, I can inspire them to love learning. I am excited to see the ways in which they will re-inspire me to love teaching and learning as well!

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