First Person

My students deal with poverty, deportation and military moves. Here’s how I make each newcomer feel welcome.

PHOTO: Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post

In my four years of teaching, there has always been at least one student in my classroom dealing with the deportation of a parent or a family member.

Likewise, I have consistently taught students who struggle with homelessness. My students have told me they slept in their car the night before, they had moved into an aunt’s garage, or they were staying with another family until they could find a place of their own.

For more than 2 million American students, their living situation is dictated by another powerful force: the U.S. military. If a parent or caregiver is on active duty, typically there is a move every two to three years.

Whether a student is connected to the military or not, the students in our classrooms who change schools often need additional attention. These moves have a sizable impact on their learning. A 1996 study that analyzed students in Chicago Public Schools published by David Kerbow found that students who were highly mobile could be as much as four months behind their schoolmates by fourth grade. By sixth grade, these highly mobile students could be as much as a full year behind academically.

However, it is possible to limit the impact of changing schools. A different assessment of research published in 2008 shows that having social support from family and peers makes a big difference. More specific studies that examined the impact of the transition to middle school or high school indicate that support from peers and teachers positively influences the academic and social adjustment of adolescent students to a new environment.

In other words, we teachers can make a huge difference in the lives of students who are mobile. We can support our students with strategies that help them to feel welcomed and cared about.

A few months into my first year of teaching, our school secretary stopped me on the way into school. She told me a new student, Mirrana, would join our class that day. She also told me this new student used a wheelchair.

This was the first time I had ever been assigned a new student. I frantically ran up to my room to arrange the tables in my classroom so Mirrana could access our room. I had to track down our custodian to see if he could raise a table so her wheelchair could fit underneath it. All of a sudden, the bell rang. Nothing was ready and I was flustered.

Looking back, I think of how Mirrana must have felt as she entered my classroom. I was concerned about the logistics of adding a new student, but she was concerned about feeling welcome. As the year went on, I was able to build a meaningful relationship with her, but I’m sure the transition could have gone more smoothly.

Ever since then, I have made it a point to have the essentials ready for a new student in a welcome package.

It does not take much extra time or effort because I do this as I am setting up my classroom at the beginning of the year. As I prepare for the first day of school, I set aside extra materials for potential new students.

I fill five cardboard magazine boxes; each contains a homework folder, writing notebook, and name plate for the desk. I also include copies of welcome letters from back-to-school nights and important handouts. For older students, a teacher might include a class syllabus, a binder, and contact information. As a school, we are also able to give each student who enters in the middle of the year a pencil bag with basic school supplies such as pencils, markers, and glue sticks donated from Yoobi, a philanthropy-focused school supply company. It is a very practical and tangible way to make new students feel welcome and cared about.

This idea could even be expanded to include the whole family. Welcome Kits can be adapted to meet the needs of local communities. Imagine giving a new family a backpack full of books or a packet of coupons to local restaurants. One school might include winter hats and gloves. Another might include coins for a local Laundromat, or subway cards. Having the school community give thought to the needs of students who will inevitably enter their school in the middle of the year helps create a welcoming culture.

Welcome Kits have helped me do just that. Since I have already put thought into how I am going to welcome a new student, even when I am given no warning, these pre-made Welcome Kits make students feel they already have a place in our community. I feel prepared to welcome a student at any time.

As teachers, we can’t always control when and why a student transitions to or from our school, but we can focus on what we do control: how we handle each situation. By having strategies ready, we can make students feel welcome and included when they arrive as well as valued and missed if they must leave.

Adapted excerpt from I Wish My Teacher Knew: How One Question Can Change Everything for Our Kids” by Kyle Schwartz. Copyright © 2016. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.