I value my summers. In my almost three decades of teaching, I had never taught summer school until this year. As an unabashed sun worshiper, my countdown to the last day of school starts after Spring Break. I tease the kids that I’m going to beat them out of the building and do wheelies in the parking lot on the way out.
I surprised even myself when I took on the challenge of not only teaching a summer school class for the first time this year but doing so for the first class exclusively of English-language learners in my career. It ended up being one of the best decisions of my life. Despite being a 28-year veteran with visions of sugarplum-retirement dancing in my head, I learned some new tricks about building relationships with diverse students and how to effectively teach English learners of varied speaking and academic abilities.
I taught a class exclusively of English-language learners with 11 students grades 9-12. In addition to the English they were there to learn, my students spoke Spanish, French, or Vietnamese. I only speak English! Although I’d had English learners in my classroom for seven years, I was not officially trained to teach an exclusively ELL class.
It was obvious that I was unprepared on the first day when I taught a lesson only in English. Confusion was evident in their faces. However, I did something right. I made connections through physical communication. I was loud, energetic, dramatic, and welcoming. I got them out of their seats and got them using the English they knew. This was a four-hour class, so I had to do something to keep them awake and engaged.
We played Four Corners, a game that directs students based on their responses to questions—What season were you born? What’s your dream vacation?—to square off in the corners of the room. We shared info about ourselves and learned what we had in common with others. From that first day, my students formed bonds with each other that would grow into friendships over the course of the three-week class.
On the second day, I regrouped. The lesson included handouts and presentations that included each of their native languages. I allowed my students to translate on their phones, communicate through their classroom peers, and create word wall signs in their native languages while they learned the English pronunciations.
We started with a stretch assignment: to write a personal memoir of a pivotal moment in their lives. I shared my personal memoir as a mentor text and walked them through how to write dialogue. They wrote their personal stories in English and used pictures when they couldn’t find the words. I printed and bound each one as a book which I gifted to them.
The assignments over the next two weeks were similar. I grouped students who shared a language to work with each other on collaborative assignments. For other work, I assigned mixed language groups to encourage immersion and building relationships with students of different backgrounds.
I learned to greet them in their native languages, talk with them about their lives, and connect every assignment to careers and events in the real world. I made assignments competitive, relevant, and engaging. That meant waiting for every student, especially the quiet ones, to translate what I said. Each child was important to me, and I wanted to make sure they knew it.
At the end of every semester, I always ask students to give me something that’s more valuable than the 3.5 percent cost of living raise I get from my school.
As a result, they learned. They completed all assignments on time, and even did summer school homework. They came to class eager to learn and complained that the 4-hour classes were too short. These children, who had failed English during the school year or who were identified for needing enrichment, passed every assessment and the class with proficiency.
At the end of every semester, I always ask students to give me something that’s more valuable than the 3.5 percent cost of living raise I get from my school: a letter written to me about their experience in my class.
From the letters my summer school class turned in, not only was it evident that their English writing improved, but their frank reflections warmed my heart. They wrote that I made it easy to learn, that I am crazy, yet effective, they were amazed to learn so much, they made new friends, and thanked me for being their teacher. But in the letter that touched me the most, one student thanked me for being patient with her moody days. She wrote about her challenges at home and how at times she struggled to come to class, but once she showed up and I began teaching, she forgot about her problems. This is why I teach.
The pedagogical studies I went into hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt for barely presented classroom relational strategies. It is an art that is learned only by immersion. You learn that when you speak your students’ lingo, notice their moods, engage in nonverbal communication with them, respect them, and understand their needs, they will learn what you are teaching.
On the first day of school every year, children run to their favorite teacher’s classroom to say hello. Inevitably, one of two things will happen: There will be a barrage of I-missed-you hugs and smiles. Or there will be yelps of “Noooo!” when the students discover that their beloved instructor has left. Although the child will miss those teachers who have moved on, that teacher has left an indelible mark of hope and accomplishment in that child’s life. This is what I learned from my three-week experience this summer and the 28 years I have chosen to remain a public school educator.
Successful educators build strong student relationships. When students have good relationships with their teachers, magic happens. They emulate their hero; they set goals to be better, they don’t want to disappoint, and they work hard to please. And they learn.
As the new year begins, make a vow to be a positive and present force in your students’ lives. Be more than educator to all of your students.
A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2022 edition of Education Week as Summer School Reminded Me Why I Love Teaching