Great educators have great stories. This series gives a glimpse of the ideas, practices, and experiences of the recipients of the NEA Foundation’s California Casualty Awards for Teaching Excellence. Today, we’re sharing the words of Maria Le, a 3rd grade educator at Central Park Elementary School in Roseville, MN.
Building relationships is one of my strengths. But I found it exceptionally difficult to build a relationship with one student because he was so closed off.
I did what any teacher would do. I implemented academic and positive behavior interventions to allow this student to succeed. I tried to find literature that he could see himself in. I created active and engaging lesson plans. I also spent many days communicating with his family after school.
I kept this student in from recess for several days to make up work not completed in class and to re-teach expectations. I remember sitting in the back of my classroom with the lights off, watching him with his head down on the table because he had lost recess time. I was exhausted and felt defeated. I could not figure out how to reach this little boy.
It was in this moment of pure vulnerability that a question finally dawned on me. “How often does this child ever get hugged?”
I called the student back to the table I was sitting at to have a conversation with him. I allowed him to explain why he did not do his work and why he chose to be unkind to one of his peers.
It was in that moment that I was completely transparent with my emotions. I explained my frustrations with the child’s behavior because I knew that he was capable of great things. He told me that I should just send him to the office because he is bad and that he would just join a gang and end up in jail one day.
This was a first-grade boy telling me he would be in jail when he grew up! I refused to accept that he was “bad.” I spoke with a very stern but loving voice. “You are NOT bad. But you have been making bad choices… and everything I am doing right now is what I know to try to keep you from going to jail someday. I do not see you in jail when you grow up, but I do see you standing up for what is right in the future.”
Then, in tears, I also promised him that I would do everything possible to keep him in the classroom because I wanted him to be there with me.
I took the child in my arms and told him that I loved him and that I did not want to see him go down a bad path. In that moment, this little boy sobbed and fell into my lap. I felt a weight lift off him as he collapsed against my shoulder.
We cried until the bell rang to signal the end of research. He quickly regained his composure and became a “tough guy” again. But we walked down the hallway to pick up his classmates from recess, he reached for my hand.