The Key to Teaching: Really Knowing Your Students

shutterstock_69851767By Laura Sumner Coon — My phone rang late on a Thursday afternoon and the voice on the other end said: “It’s four o’clock, Laura, and do you know what I’m doing? I’m having a glass of wine. I’m so totally frustrated.”

It wasn’t the kind of conversation I anticipated from this long-time mentor, a retired accountant who has been working with students after school for more than five years. She typically is long on patience, speaks fluent Spanish and has an uncanny knack for breaking down lessons into sizable learning chunks.

But today, she just couldn’t break through to her fourth-grade student — we’ll call him Edwin. After 20 minutes of nothing, she walked him to the after-school care program, called his mom and then dialed me.

Something clearly wasn’t working.

Edwin is bilingual and attended a bilingual school for the first four years of his education. He transferred to a smaller school in the fall, and that’s where he was matched with the mentor to offer homework help and English support.

My guess was that Edwin, too, was frustrated.

“Could you meet with me, Edwin and his mom tomorrow?” I asked.

“Of course,” said the mentor.

It was barely an hour after our conversation when the school principal emailed me to apologize for Edwin’s behavior. I promptly called her and said that something apparently was happening in Edwin’s life. She, too, wondered what might be happening. His behavior, which never had been an issue, had changed over the last three weeks. He was now sometimes disruptive and just … well, off.

“Let me know what you find out,” said the principal.

The next afternoon, I rushed from a meeting back to my office, where I was to meet with Edwin, his mother and the mentor. It was February, and the winter had been brutal – days unending with subzero temperatures. I was astounded to look in my rearview mirror as I parked to see Edwin, his mom and his brother all standing at the office door, bundled against the harsh cold. No other car was in sight.

I scrambled to let them into the office, where we all sat around a table ready to talk. After some friendly greetings, I asked Mom whether anything had changed in the last few weeks. She took a minute, thought about it, and couldn’t come up with anything different. I then asked Edwin and his brother if something had happened at school. “No,” they said.

The mentor joined us at the table and described what had been happening. Edwin is very polite, extremely soft-spoken, but he just doesn’t seem interested at all in his school work, she said. He doesn’t focus, doesn’t seem to be listening and then simply doesn’t do anything. This has been happening for the last two sessions.

As conversation continued, Mom’s eyes widened and she blurted: “I know what it is! Three weeks ago, I had to stop driving. My license expired.”

“Have you been taking the bus everywhere? Is that how you got here?” I asked.

“Yes. We get the bus at six o’clock to get downtown, and then get another bus to go to school.”

“Ah!” I said.

Here it was. The answer to the mentor’s frustration.shutterstock_83192953

The key to different behavior at school. For three weeks, Edwin and his brother were wrapping up to guard against subzero weather, going with their mom to catch the bus in the morning darkness, enduring more than an hour of bus riding and waiting to get to school on time. By 2:30, mentoring time, Edwin had hit the wall. He was exhausted. How could anyone focus or think?

Understanding poverty and the unique situations many immigrant families face provides a key to unlock all kinds of barriers to joyful, attentive learning. Taking a bus everywhere, was just the tip of the iceberg. Because his parents worked weekends and finances required they live in a housing project in a less-than-safe neighborhood, Edwin had no recreational opportunities. His life revolved around school – getting up before dawn, traipsing through the cold, enduring endless bus rides, sitting in a classroom, and then reversing the trip every day.

“What would you like to do?” I asked Edwin.

“Play soccer!” he said.

Within the month, Edwin was in a recreational soccer league. We changed the way we supported his academic work and we communicated more closely with his school. His grades improved, as did his attention span.

After our meeting, I updated the school principal. “Why didn’t Edwin’s teacher realize what was happening?” she wondered.

I didn’t realize what was happening either until I met with the family, I told her. I had to put all of the clues together. I had to be intentional about digging to discover the obstacles to Edwin’s learning. I would never have discovered them if it weren’t for that phone call from a frustrated mentor. I also had to be aware of the situations poverty impose on students.

It took a whole team of people – the mentor, the principal, the mom, the student and me – to find the problem and seek a solution for Edwin. I’m happy to say he is thriving now.

Taking time for meaningful communication and being open to discover just who a student is and what support is necessary are essential if I want to effectively teach.

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