I believe in my students. And I believe they can succeed: those who arrive in class on time, those who show up sporadically, those who mysteriously drop out and are lost to my roster, and those ones who come back for more.
I teach English, mostly developmental writing, at an urban community college in the Bronx. My students are predominantly Dominican, but my classes are economically, ethnically, and educationally diverse. I believe in my students just because they are: they come to class and when they’re not there it’s almost always because life gets in the way—a sister’s burst appendix, a towed car, a court date, an ill parent, a conflict in their work schedule, no child care—and sometimes because they don’t want to be there that day. I believe my students can succeed because they have made it this far—to a community college classroom. Many of my students have traveled thousands of miles—from the Caribbean islands, Ghana, Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Albania, and Guyana—to be in my classroom; if they struggle with the conventions of standard written English or if they have difficulty getting to class on time because they’ve been up working all night, they’ll eventually get through and they are motivated.
I believe my students can succeed and that it’s my responsibility to guide them, to provide myriad opportunities for their success. I attempt to be the kind of teacher who says, “Yes, you can!”: yes you can take notes, compose an essay, learn to type, analyze a story, relate respectfully to your peers; yes you can get through the mandated assessments; yes you can learn even though you’ve been out of school for two, five, ten, fifteen, twenty years and have raised a family. Yes you can graduate—and graduate with honors. Yes you can go to a four year school—and even a really good one. My students inspire me to show them the way, to lead by example, to take pride in their work, their progress, the challenges they overcome.
When a student comes in late, I am happy to see them; I believe my students need me to support their academic lives. I remember taking an adult education course in Hebrew prayer at a local synagogue. The cantor was the teacher and there were seven or eight students in the class. One Sunday morning a student showed up an hour late; visibly upset, she came in, apologized and joined the class. Rather than reprimanding her or making a sarcastic remark or completely ignoring her, the cantor warmly welcomed her into the class and continued with the lesson. I was so impressed with the positive atmosphere this gesture created. “That’s how I want to be,” I thought to myself. We are all adults—like my students, we choose to be in class, we want to learn, and for the most part, we are embarrassed about being conspicuously late. I later found out the student had just learned her daughter was seriously ill—yet still she came to class.
School provides structure, a place, community—whether a community college or an adult education class. Students don’t want to be treated like elementary school children. Even the students who come in defiantly interrupting class with ear phones blaring and a Sidekick mid-message need to be welcomed into the fold. Once they have settled in the classroom, I, like the cantor, greet my students with a smile, and continue with the lesson. There is work to be done, lessons learned, exercises performed, and essays drafted.
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