“Don’t you love New York in the fall? It makes me want to buy school supplies.”
September is upon us. Shore homes are closing up, Back-to-School sections at Staples stores are overrun, and students and parents are frantically preparing for the first day of school with uniforms, notebooks, art supplies, and the hottest Marvel Comics lunch box.
While all this is taking place, a smaller, but still significant, number are preparing for their first day. Not just the first day of school, but the first day at a new school. When we typically think of the dreaded first day, our thoughts initially jump to the students. New students in new buildings walking in knowing few to no other members of the school community trying to figure out where to go, who to talk to, and how to fit in. This is daunting enough in and of itself.
But there are others who have a similar experience. Rookie teachers attempt their first “teacher-look” to bring class to order and experienced teachers new to a building feel out the vibe in the teachers’ lounge. Additionally, parents may have that first day feeling, as their child enters a new home away from home. We may remember those “helicopter parents” or those very uncomfortable at the opening PTA meeting. All of these “firsts” are linked – they can be frightening, stressful, and full of incredible potential and hope.
The way we enter these first days (or, conversely, the way we welcome newcomers on these days), depends greatly on our attitude and disposition. We need to be aware of the challenges that are encountered in entering new communities. We can also be conscious of the openness, intentionality, and effort required to create welcoming environments and to, in turn, become an integral part of that new community.
I remember my first year of teaching, which also coincided with my first year living in Birmingham, Alabama. I was fresh out of college, full of optimism, and lacking any sense of the reality of the school community. I taught middle school reading, language arts, and social studies at an urban Catholic elementary school that served a predominantly African-American population. I stood out in a way I have never experienced before, complete with my “white man uniform” – blue oxford shirt, yellow tie, khaki pants, and brown, earthy shoes. I found myself assigned to the sixth grade homeroom and teaching the same group of 15 boys and three girls for approximately four hours each day. While they were a great bunch – creative, imaginative, aware of the world around them in their town, and inquisitive – the boys had a tendency to become aggressive with one another. One day, two boys started “cracking” on one another, hurling insults back and forth, which then erupted into a physical fight. The fight was stopped, the students separated, and I called each of their parents in for a meeting.
The following morning, one of the boy’s mothers met with the principal and me about the fight. She said something to me that I will never forget – something which deeply hurt me at the time, though after much reflection and critical thought has proved to be one of the most important things anyone has ever said: “You don’t know these children. You don’t know why they fight, what they’ve been through, or their relationship with one another. So don’t be wasting my time when you don’t know.” And you know what? She was exactly right.
For the remainder of the year, I worked to become a better teacher. I spent hours trying to improve my lessons and assessments. But more importantly, I strove to get to know my students. To learn more about them, their interests, their families, their lives. To talk with them during lunch or on the playground about music, sports, and news in Birmingham. And I strove to get to know their families, too. To learn what their parents did, where their brothers went to school, how their grandmas cooked their collard greens. Was I a perfect teacher, both in the classroom and out? Certainly not. But did I do my best to challenge my students academically, while also striving to build trust and relationships with them and their families? I think so.
What I learned from my first years teaching in Birmingham was this: New school experiences for students, parents, and teachers alike are difficult. While the academic challenges are real, perhaps the most significant challenge is breaking down barriers that naturally arise by being new. By taking the time to build trust through conversation and shared experiences (coaching, extracurricular activities, showing up at students’ and school events), the relationships formed will have an incredible ripple effect that will impact all aspects of a school community: student achievement, student motivation, student behavior, student-teacher relationships, parent/guardian/family-teacher relationships, and school-community relationships. Is this a guarantee? No. But it is the closest thing I have found to it. And I have seen the impact that it can have on a school community.
Michael O’Connor is the Assistant Director of Programs for the Alliance for Catholic Education at Saint Joseph’s University (ACESJU), a post-graduate teaching fellows program that serves urban Catholic schools in Philadelphia. Originally from Kingston, PA (in a region fondly referred to as “NEPA”), he received his M.Ed. from the Alliance for Catholic Education Service Through Teaching program at the University of Notre Dame while teaching middle school for two years in Birmingham, AL. He is proud to now call Philadelphia home.
Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) in “You’ve Got Mail” (1998).