Published Online: April 8, 2009

Kids Coming and Going

It’s Thursday morning and I glance at my open e-mail screen as I buzz by my desk in the computer lab. And there it is again, the fourth time this week. Subject line: “Students coming/leaving.”

Apprehensive, I stop to open and read it. It’s Christina from Michelle’s class. One of my all-time favorite lab-lunch kids. I scroll down to see that she is not only leaving, but she has left. Her family has moved and she is gone without saying goodbye.

I read down the rest of the e-mail. Two students are coming—a boy into 4th grade from Honduras with the ELL level of 1, meaning no English at all, and his sister into kindergarten, also with no English. I will need to watch for them—to help them at the bus and in the lab.

But I can’t get past Christina. She was just in here on Tuesday, not a word said about leaving, happy and bouncy as usual. When she left she saved her work on the server, to take up again tomorrow at our regular “come to my lab for lunch” get together. Did she not know? I feel burned, and I can only imagine how she feels. This is Eduardo and Biriva and Xavier all over again. Here one day and gone the next—with no warning or opportunity for farewell.

I catch Michelle, Christina’s teacher, in the hallway, and she looks the way I feel—stunned, sad. She didn’t know Christina was leaving, either. She keeps saying, “I have all of her stuff…her desk…her projects.” She is almost in tears.

If this were a single happening, we could comfort each other, but it happens every week, year in and year out. We can hardly recover from one loss before the next one comes along.

My school has a student mobility rate of close to 40 percent, meaning kids are coming and leaving daily. The county has a whole has a mobility rate of around 16 percent. Here on the page, these numbers are meaningless, but when you add faces to the numbers, it means that close to half the students we’ve cared for since September won’t be with us in the spring. And by the end of the year, their assigned desks may have been the temporary residencies of two or more other little bodies.

Demographics Don’t Tell This Story

This is hard. It is hard for the kids, both the ones leaving and the ones staying. And it is also hard for the teachers. Feelings of loss are not something measured in the demographic data. Gender, race, ELL, socio-economic level—these can be measured. But the emotional toll of student mobility on both teachers and students isn’t quantifiable or subject to analysis by statisticians.

After Christmas, Eduardo, a student I wrote about last year, dropped in before our shared bus duty to tell me that his family had bought a house. This is one of the few good things about the terrible state of the economy—families who can manage to stay employed are finally able to buy houses in this severely depressed market. I congratulated him and plied him for details. He told me more about it, emphasizing he would get his own bedroom. But he never once mentioned where the new house was.

We spent January doing our usual geeky lab things before and after school and during lunch, without another word about the house. The last afternoon before the semester break, I reported for bus duty to find that Eduardo, our patrol captain extraordinaire, was absent. We searched the crowds of kids and found a substitute holding Eduardo’s clipboard. She said Eduardo had asked her to be the captain for the afternoon. I stopped in the office after buses were gone to find the attendance assistant sending the dreaded e-mail with Eduardo’s name in it. His family had moved out of the county, and he could not bring himself to say goodbye.

Teachers gathered in the hallway as the news spread—on some level, you would have thought he had died. They shared stories of his entrance into kindergarten, fresh from Mexico with no English and no way to communicate other than a big smile. “We are sad,” I kept thinking. “We are mourning him.”

Teaching Is About Relationships

You say, “Why is she whining about this? Children come and go—that is the nature of the job.” Yes, I agree. But as we all know, teaching is much more than imparting content knowledge; it is about building relationships. And what is the effect of high transiency on teachers and relationship-building?

Over time, all of us who work in schools come to learn that September means hello and June means goodbye. We were conditioned to this when we were children and are reinforced now in our profession. But that cycle is interrupted weekly at my school, and it creates different kinds of adaptations—some healthy, and some not.

I see the young teachers throw themselves into the lives of these children, visiting families, investing heart and soul, and then being devastated as a child leaves without warning—without that last hug or handshake and words of farewell. It is a little death. And then I see these teachers start to build walls around themselves, putting a little less of their hearts into their kids so that they are less exposed each time. At the end, some are completely detached. That is a common feeling among adults in schools like mine.

But I also see teachers who have managed to find a balance between investing in children and minimizing the pain of constant loss. This is the rare teacher in my school, but they are here. I think we would all like to get to that place.

I don’t know that I have quite recovered from the unexpected moves of so many of my kids. They were here and now they are gone and I miss them. I would love to know how they turn out, and if they remember what we all did together, and if it made a difference. I would have liked a proper goodbye—to say or do something that would leave them and me with a talisman of the fun and learning we did together.

Teachers in buildings like ours need to find a way to continue to make those all-important personal connections with our students without sacrificing our own core of emotional stability—so that their time with us is rich and rewarding, and they leave with a memory of caring teachers that will positively color their next school experience.

Maybe that is my problem most of all—what will they find in the next school? Will the teachers care about them the way I did? Will they see the gifts we saw? Will the move have a negative effect on my kids’ perception of school, so that they are not as willing to expose themselves to the risks of learning?

Maybe the answer is to not anticipate the losses, but to look on each day with kids as possibly the last day you will see them and to make that precious time between teacher and student as meaningful as possible.

If I can do that each night—look myself in the eye and know that I did my very best with the kids I was privileged to be with today—then perhaps I will find the balance I need.

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