How a teacher who arrived a week before school began started making genuine connections with her kids.
The office supply store Staples was my virtual shopping buddy during my first year of teaching. I had arrived in New York City in 2004, a week before the school year began, to teach 8th grade English Language Arts in the South Bronx. I had not even found a permanent place of residence and was living in a hostel off of Central Park West with few personal effects. What I did have in my possession were fundamental teaching supplies in my rolling luggage: dry erase markers, colored chalk (yes I know, old school), gradebook/lesson plan book, 1 box of pencils, and post-its.
My “essential 5” teacher kit would hardly get me through the year and so at the end of the second week of school I logged onto www.staples.com to shop by category. I clicked on the desk organizers and accessories link and salivated over the matching stapler, staple remover, and desktop organizers to accentuate my chipped wooden desk. For my students, I added to my online shopping basket mini pens, apple shaped post-its for reflective writing, apple shaped borders and posters from the teacher supply section, as well as scissors and glue sticks from the arts & crafts tab. I even delighted myself with purchases of sketch pads and books (again, to capture reflective thinking and students’ responses).
The fun fact about my online shopping buddy site was that it was always available. I had convinced myself, novice teacher that I was, that the consistent ordering of supplies for my classroom would put me on the path to success in managing the students and providing “good instruction,” a code phrase for connecting with my kids. I arrived at school by 6:45 a.m. eager to post my posters and “pretty border” around the room, which was becoming print-rich. When my 8th grade students walked into my much-improved room, I was confident they would be more compliant and ready to learn. They would sit in their assigned seats, take out their notebooks and begin the do-now without as much prompting as I had done in previous days.
Indeed, when my students entered the classroom that day they sat obediently in their seats. But now, click on the ”refresh” button. Because what actually happened were students saying, “Ms. Thomas’ reds were off.” That my room, “lacked soul.” The post-its were not used as exit tickets, but became notes to their friends and a headache to others. Such taunts as “kick-me” or “I have a big head,” were written instead and then secretly placed on students’ backs. Others were a little quieter in their actions and instead added additional commentary to the grammar posters creating happy faces out of commas and sad faces from semicolons. Those were the kinder gestures. I watched as they wrote their names in bubble font along the apple borders and realized that I was facing a new reality: pretty room + purchases + planning did NOT = connecting with my students.
It was when I heard one student say, “Ms. Thomas could have gotten those same apple-shaped borders and notepad from the $1.00 store on St. Ann’s. She ain’t ready for that though!,” that I started to change my habits. My virtual generic shopping buddy became replaced with walks to the neighborhood dollar store as I began purchasing my notepads, colored paper, and mechanical pencils there. I eventually replaced all items hanging on the classroom walls with comparative products from the dollar store. I even bragged to my students that “I walked your streets looking for the best deals” and they should use the store to purchase classroom items from my revised 8th grade English Language Arts supply list.
No longer did I need to look elsewhere to provide a room that my students would be proud to enter, where they would feel at home. They slowly began to buy into who I was as a teacher and what I had to offer. The person that arrived a week before school began started making genuine connections with her kids.
If you can find a way to connect with the community you teach, it will openly embrace what you have to provide. By the end of the second marking period, my students took me more seriously. I had learned an important lesson: when my classroom environment honored my students’ community, I indirectly communicated to them that I wanted to be a part of their community as we began the process to co-construct a meaningful year.