Meeting the Social Emotional Needs of Our Students

My education career started as a 6th grade teacher in New York City, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn and the Cambria Heights neighborhood in Queens. Both areas were noted for students from low income minority and immigrant families. Today we would refer to them as Title I schools.

I quickly perceived that my students were not coming to school ready to learn. They were distracted, lacked discipline and were not motivated. Many came to school hungry, sick and preoccupied with issues at home. I had the advantage of being a fluent Spanish speaker and young. Many of the students gravitated towards me as they felt that I was one of them.

Those were the days that preceded the No Child Left Behind era of accountability based on student test scores. My students were tested but the standardized test scores were unavailable for at least two years. By then most of the students were gone. Also, my principal was happy to have an adult in each classroom. Teacher turn-over was a major factor.

The situation was there that empowered me to take a step back from academics and focus on the needs of the students.

The Cambria Heights school I taught in was only two blocks away from the home I lived in with my parents. I began walking home for lunch and taking four or five students with me. My mother would make them sandwiches and afterwards we would shoot some hoops in the driveway.

Not a doable situation today.

The result was that I developed a rapport with my students so that they responded to the dignity I showed them with respect towards me. I quickly realized that they were willing to learn from me, that I could teach them and that my positive reaction to their improved performance in itself became a reward for them.

Today we refer to this process as social emotional learning. By addressing the needs of their students teachers earn their respect and conversely the students are more willing to learn. Fifty-two years after I started teaching, my daughter is also a sixth grade teacher working with a student population very similar to the students I taught. In conversations with her she shares with me her adventures in the classroom. Although she does not have the freedom I enjoyed, she treats her students with dignity and they in turn return her efforts with their respect. She has already won the accolades of her administrators by obtaining test scores that would not be expected for her students. Students that are not in her class gravitate towards her because her students talk to their friends.

I smile as she shares her stories with me. She shows me the notes she receives from her students showing great appreciation for what she does for them. I am incredibly proud of her and in my conceit I say that she takes after her dad.

I hope that American education has turned the corner and we are more concerned about the needs of our students than we are about their test scores. Suicide rates and drug usage is rampant. Students are being shot in their classrooms. Students are sick and hungry because we are denying them food and medical services. If we take care of them their scores will take care of themselves.

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