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What a Teacher Knows Keeps Children Learning

Kelsey Stoyanova

In my desk drawer there are snacks. There are over 250 books on my shelves, and wooden letters on the windowsill that are supposed to say “READ” and “TEACH” but often say “THE CAT,” “KITTEN,” or if someone is feeling really snarky, “CHEAT.”

I coined ‘High Five Friday’ in November after, at the bell one Friday morning, a student came to my desk and asked for “one good one” to take with her before she left. Sometimes their hands and arms are so tangled around books and binders I might get an elbow, a foot, or yes, at times a forehead -- but everyone gets a high five from me -- a hand to guide them through the weekend. 

On Mondays, before picking up a pencil, we take 5, 10, I’ll admit, sometimes 15 minutes to share the highlights of our weekends. While this routine may, in the course of a year, take countless hours away from other more “academic” activities I could be facilitating -- ‘Weekend Share’ is the way I know how Sarah’s basketball game went, how many tacos Laura ate, and that Geoff’s dog had to be given up for adoption. It’s the way I know that Sarah would love to research the NCAA to argue that athletes should be compensated for what they contribute to a team, and that Laura’s restaurant menu for Spanish class is going to include all-you-can-eat tacos of many flavors -- including a dessert taco. And it’s how I know to write Geoff a pass to have lunch with me today, even though that is when I was going to make photocopies for my afternoon class. 

I teach.

I high five. 

I watch. 

I listen. 

I know my students. 

I know that Joey wants to be a veterinarian after he helped deliver puppies two weeks ago, and Maya just got her first computer desk after using cardboard boxes she put together back in elementary school. I know that Rachel is a Hufflepuff, just like me, and one of these days we are going to dress like twins. I know Jeremy is finding so much success in high school after the divorce of his parents took a toll on him, and while Bradley and his family were evicted last year, he’s now back and came to visit me. He said high school is okay. 

classroom scene

But my heart hurts. 

It’s so full of things I know and take home at the end of a long day. Things I tuck in with me at night and see in the mirror in the morning. Things that can both line my smile and pull the tears from my eyes. I don’t get paid for these things. For the extra hours, the snacks, the books, the time spent engaging with and relating to these children on a personal level.

I get paid to teach my students based on a set of standards that are predetermined but ever changing. I get paid to deliver curriculum, assess, grade, reflect and repeat. And while that is certainly a one-dimensional version of what is expected of a teacher, it’s not that far off from reality. The teachers you had, your children have, the ones you are friends with? If you are thinking of them now, it’s because they, too, do so much more than what they are paid for. And while I can’t speak for them, I know I would not have it any other way. 

Building a community in the classroom starts with me emulating what I expect of my students. That is, I expect them to enter my room with an open mind, an open heart, and an open ear. It’s not uncommon to hear from a complete stranger upon finding out my occupation, “Oh, middle school? You brave soul.” But when I’m up late on a Friday night grading 55 essays instead of attending a show with my friends, or checking my school email on a Sunday morning after ordering brunch with my husband, it’s not because I have to -- it’s because I want to.

I want my students to know that I’m 100% present because I need them to be 100% present too. Building those relationships from day one ensures that, on most days, I guide a strong classroom full of engaged students to enduring understandings about themselves and their world. That has nothing to do with bravery. I promise you I’m not that brave, except when I have to teach for 75 minutes right after a Phys. Ed. class on a Friday afternoon in June. 

But we’ll save that story for another time. 

These are the facts: I am a teacher in a Maine public school. I get school breaks, snow days, and summers “off.” I teach English to 7th and 8th graders, and try my hardest to build and deliver engaging curriculum based on a set of standards and guidelines I’ve been given. 

But have you ever thought about what I know? 

I know my students. 

I know Amanda has a hard time waking up in the morning, but a pinky promise and a long conversation on Friday afternoon says she will come to school on Monday. 

My heart is full. 

Kelsey Stoyanova, a Maine Public Educator, teaches Language Arts & Writing at Reeds Brook Middle School and is a regular contributor to Raise Your Voice.