This time of year, it’s easy for educators to get overwhelmed by workshops, unit-planning and readying classrooms, and hard to take time away from tasks to set intentions. Throughout the stress of the back to school, and, honestly, the whole year, students are my only sure sense of inspiration. That’s why, during this back to school season, I’m calling on all educators—myself included—to reflect on the past year, to remember the students that pushed and impacted us and to recommit to our work for the coming year.
There are two students in particular who impacted me deeply last year and motivate me to prepare for a new round of lessons, students and learning. I dedicate this coming year to Paw Khu and Yanira.*
I met Paw Khu last year, when she was in high school. During our “Get to Know You” interview when I started my work with her, I learned that she and her family had overcome tremendous trauma in their country of origin. I never pushed her to share more of her story than she volunteered, but I did learn that it included violence and loss that I haven’t experienced in a life far longer than hers.
I admire Paw Khu most for her spunk and independence. She’s smart, talented and wants to be a music teacher, so we talked a lot about that and options to pay for college. I came to love how she speaks her mind (even when her reaction to my haircut was “ew”). I was lucky to have the opportunity to get to know her, as she’s not at all what I expected from my first impression of a sassy teenager disengaged from school. She’s returning to my school next year, and I’m excited to continue nurturing her potential.
Yanira was in middle school last year, and was easier for me to connect with as we shared two languages and a love of talking. She also faced major challenges at a young age, moving to a drastically different environment when her family was victimized by crime. Last school year, she spoke up for herself and her siblings, resulting in her removal from home and foster care placement. The stress she experienced at home surfaced at school through acting out.
We spent many lunches together discussing what was going on in her life and how she was handling it (much better than I could have). I pushed her to focus on work during class time, first offering the chance to voice the past day’s events and her feelings about them. I watched her English skills progress quickly, marveling not only at the details of her history as she crafted her “memoir” for an assignment, but also at her strong writing voice and the healing she found in telling her story. We both cried as I hugged her at her end-of-year school-family conference, knowing that I likely won’t see her again because she’s moving to a new school.
When my job seems unmanageable, I refer back to an email from a colleague: “I want to share how well Paw Khu has been doing in math. I believe it is a direct reflection on you and the work you’ve done with Paw Khu. She is taking more of an interest in my class and has become quite successful as a result.”
Likewise, the work I will do this year is a direct reflection of the impact these two students, and many others, have had on me. They will help me get out of bed the morning after my first bad day, and remind me to focus on what I can impact despite the temptation to resign myself to the many things I can’t. They make we want to be the best teacher I can be, the teacher that Paw Khu, Yanira and all our students deserve.
*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the students.
Leah Delia Larson is a library media specialist at the Perpich Arts High School in Golden Valley and an ELL teacher at Crosswinds Arts and Science School in Woodbury. She started her career in education in 2001, and has taught everything from middle school ESL and special education in Texas to elementary school in Brooklyn. After teaching for several years, she moved back home to Minnesota to complete a degree in school library media, and went on to work for six wonderful years at Richfield Middle School before transitioning to her current roles. Leah is passionate about many things, particularly literacy, culturally competent curriculum and teaching, equity teacher training, increasing Latino student achievement and family engagement, bilingualism and social and emotional health.
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