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Stories from the Field

California Casualty Awardees Maria Le: Building Relationships

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.

Meet more of the 2018 NEA Foundation awardees hereLearn more about the NEA Foundation’s Awards for Teaching Excellence criteria and nominations process.

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