It seems hard to believe it, but today marks the end of my first semester teaching in the tundra. Four months ago, it felt like this day was ages away; now, it feels as if the time has passed in the blink of an eye.
I think back to the first day of school, when all I knew about my kids were their names and a few basic facts gleaned from the computer files and my fellow teachers. I remember the first week of school, when I realized just how far behind they are, not only academically, but also socially and emotionally. Their reading skills, as measured in words read correctly per minute (WCPM), registered in the 30th percentile for all third graders in the US. For the most part, they could add with regrouping, but none of them could subtract with regrouping. More than a few of them refused to come up to the front of the room for anything, and getting most of them to speak up enough to be heard in the classroom was a good trick. If they decided that they didn’t like something, whether it was a direction I’d given or the way a classmate treated them, they would put their heads down on their desk, stick their fingers in their ears, and refuse to do much of anything; some of them were known to literally curl up in a ball under their desk. Eventually, they’d unclench, but good luck getting anything out of them about what had happened.
Four months later, it’s a joy to realize how much they’ve grown. All of them have made progress with their reading, to the point that several of them are actually, finally, considered to be on grade level. Everyone can now add and subtract with regrouping, and also work their way through the multiplication tables up to 12. They’ve also started to learn division. While their number skills aren’t the best, I feel good because they are learning different problem-solving strategies that can be applied to a variety of mathematics.
But more than their academic growth, I am most pleased by the growth I’ve seen in them as people. Now, rather than act as described above, if one of my students is having a tough time, they are more often than not willing to communicate with me. It’s not always talking; sometimes, they are better able to signal to me with body language than words. But they communicate with me, and as a result I can help them help themselves. Somehow, in all of the craziness of the past four months, I’ve shown them that they can trust me.
The best example of this trust came today, in the form of the annual Christmas assembly. Every year, each elementary class puts together a song, poem, or such to perform for fellow students and community members. My kids are obsessed with Disney’s “Frozen”, and when I suggested that we sing “Let It Go” there were cheers. After two weeks of rehearsal, today eighteen of my nineteen students stood up in front of all of those people and sang along, while the nineteenth kid used my iPad to record the whole thing. One-hundred percent participation. Success.