My first mentor teacher told me, “When you get a new student, you don’t have just one new kid. You have 25 new kids.”
He was right. Until December, our class was about as harmonious as a troop of 8-year-olds with wildly varying needs, quirks, and temperaments could be. Then we got a new kid, and the class community fractured a little bit. It wasn’t a sudden shattering, like a dropped vase. More of a realignment, a shifted tectonic plate that caused enough seismic activity to be felt without actually knocking anything over.
Suddenly my 2nd graders were a little rowdier. Guadalupe, my student with autism, needed more frequent interventions throughout the day to avert a meltdown. I became a little grumpier, less patient, a little more eager to reach the end of the day and send the kids home.
I only had one new student, but it felt like I had a whole new class.
The New Kid
Santiago moves and talks like he has a motor inside his body that’s stuck in overdrive. I speak Spanish, but he speaks so fast that I often have no idea what he’s trying to tell me.
He’s affectionate, leaning against my arm when we read together, seizing me in a tight hug and telling me, “Te extraño!” (“I missed you!”), after a weekend away from school. He loves vividly illustrated books like Dog Man and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, even though he can’t read almost any of the words.
He is also quick to anger. This week alone, he has gotten in trouble for pushing other kids on the way back from recess, spitting on another student, and rushing out of the cafeteria and down the hall without permission because he suddenly felt the anger rising up. He told me he wants a pitbull because “se enojan” (“they get mad”) like him. You can guess his favorite superhero, right? The most famous exemplar of anger issues in the Marvel universe: The Incredible Hulk.
I looped with 22 of my students from 1st to 2nd grade, so by this point I know instinctively how to meet their various needs. When Guadalupe starts crying, I know I’d better find a silly picture book as quickly as possible—Those Darn Squirrels! is a trusty favorite—so I can get her laughing before her quiet tears become bellowing sobs. When Luis gets overwhelmed and twists his mouth into a silent grimace, I know to send him down the hall to splash water on his face. With Santiago, I don’t have that deep well to draw from. Two months after he joined our class, he and I are still figuring each other out.
The Village It Takes
For most kids, it takes a village. For children like Santiago, it takes a village and a half.
One thing I love about my school is that it has in place precisely the kinds of supports that 30,000 teachers in L.A. went on strike last month to secure for their students. Our school therapist, who has training to deal with deeper issues than the everyday squabbles our school counselor knows how to handle, has begun pulling Santiago to provide therapy in his native language. Our office staff is connecting his mom with the kinds of resources she needs to handle the daunting issues that come with poverty, the violence she fled in El Salvador, and the struggle to adapt to a language and culture that is not her own.
We’re figuring out what Santiago needs in order to thrive. The option to take his own “timeout” in one of the class tents when he feels the anger bubbling up. A partner he chose who translates for him and explains the assignments in Spanish.
Above all else, he needs to know that he belongs in this country, this school, and this class. He needs to know that we care about him deeply, and we will catch him when he falls.
Three Tips for Welcoming New Students
Most new students don’t arrive with the array of needs that Santiago possesses. But it’s almost always tricky to integrate a new kid who contains a complex geography of strengths, needs, and quirks that we haven’t yet begun to map. What can we do to make their arrival a little smoother?
1. Expect things to change.
School isn’t just school. It’s home. Between Monday morning and Friday afternoon, our students generally spend more waking hours in school than they do in their own homes. Imagine a stranger showing up tomorrow and moving into your house. Whether they were rude or polite, tidy or messy, it would feel weird to have a new houseguest cooking in the kitchen or stretched out on the couch.
Be ready to adjust. Pay attention to how things may be changing in your classroom, and why. It’s not just your new student who will need you to listen carefully, observe keenly, and summon more patience and compassion than usual. The other kids in the class will need a little more from you, too.
2. Have a desk and welcome packet ready to go.
The revolving door at our school can spin quickly. Sometimes a new kid arrives before I made time to remove the old nametag and belongings of the student who vacated the desk the day before.
It’s much more welcoming for new students to walk in and find a clean desk waiting for them, with all the supplies they’ll need, than to have them stand there awkwardly while you empty out half-filled notebooks and broken pencils. It’s a good idea to have a folder ready to go, too, with the letter you wrote to families at the beginning of the year and any school information or paperwork the parents might need.
Consider how your other students can help welcome the new student, too. One year I had a girl with shaken baby syndrome who had been in a self-contained special education classroom but began to join our class for an hour each day. On her first day with us, my students lined up and one by one they handed her cards they had made that morning, welcoming her to our class. I will never forget her dawning look of wonder.
3. Go back to the beginning.
We do all kinds of activities to build class community the first few weeks of school. Then we get caught up in the hustle of the school year, and it’s easy to let the social-emotional stuff go out the window.
When a new student joins your class, make time for a few get-to-know-you activities. Have the kids wear nametags for a couple of days, until the new student has learned at least a handful of names.
Revisit the fundamentals: class norms like kindness, respect, and listening to one another. The first week of school, I teach my kids how to do a “Peace Talk” following a series of read alouds and conversations about anger and other emotions. New students will need me to circle back to those lessons and routines.
A classroom of children is like a family. It’s full of all the joy, trust, and comfort that can exist in a tightly knit family, but it’s also plagued by the ruptures, frustrations, and broken bonds that even the closest of families can experience at times. Going back to the beginning will help integrate your new student into that family. It will also give the other kids a chance to strengthen their connections and repair any rifts that have opened up over the course of the year.
Years from now, your new students might not remember the lessons you taught on landforms or expanded notation during their first week. But they will remember your kindness.
There’s something miraculous about the way 25 strangers become, through the days and hours of the school year, a family unit. That gradual alchemy is at the heart of the work teachers do with every child in our care, whether we have known them only a few hours or for many years.