On a bright January afternoon, students noisily file into a warm classroom at historic Crittenden Middle School in Newport News. Their backpacks and faux fur-trimmed hoodies may be those of typical American middle schoolers, but the noise they make is a distinctive chorus of multilingual chatter.
Once they’ve settled in, teacher Sarah Kleinman asks them to go around the room and introduce themselves in English. They begin with, “My name is …” and they follow up with what native language they speak. “I speak Farsi,” “Swahili” or “Spanish” are the most common pronouncements.
Finally, they share something they like. “I like math” and “I like soccer” are favorites. “I like my teacher,” says one girl. “And your teacher likes you,” Kleinman answers without missing a beat.
Students in this 6–8 grade Newcomer English as a Second Language class will spend up to a year with Kleinman and her assistants, concentrating on basic conversational and social English in an immersive environment before they are able to transition to the school’s mainstream population. Some have had excellent schooling and only need help with the language barrier, while many struggle with basic literacy and math skills.
But academic journeys are invariably tied to personal and social ones. Every teacher who sets foot into a classroom quickly understands that student needs go far beyond four walls and a curriculum. As a result, teachers find themselves wearing many hats.
Kleinman’s students face a particularly unique and diverse set of challenges as they adjust to American life from countries and territories all over the world. And so does their teacher. Sometimes those challenges have to do with simple logistics and practicalities we take for granted. Things like explaining snow days and freezing pipes to students and families who have never even seen snow.
“Just this morning the bus didn’t come for one of our new students,” Kleinman says. “The parent was not comfortable with their English enough to call and complain, so I called transportation of their behalf and tried to get that coordinated.”
There are immediate material needs for things like school supplies, regular meals and proper winter clothing. Kleinman credits a supportive school system and a willing community for the fact that she and others can advocate for these students on a variety of levels. This year, she was able to provide coats for all the students in her class who needed them.
“Typically, I visit each family in their home to introduce myself, welcome them to the U.S. and see what they need. I then try and work with my neighbors to get them what they need. I am very lucky that many of my friends want to help my students, so if I say I need coats or a composition notebook, I very quickly have things to support them.”
Then there are profound psychological needs for those who have experienced trauma. Many are refugees or unaccompanied minors coming to the United States from dangerous political or environmental situations in places like Afghanistan or Puerto Rico. For them, something as routine as a fire drill may require some pre-planning and reassurance that they are in a safe and nurturing environment.
Clearly, deep psychological stress is ideally addressed with a comprehensive approach beyond the expertise or expectations of a single teacher. Yet the role of teacher as counselor is one that is likely familiar to anyone who has dried a kindergartener’s tears or had a hallway heart-to-heart with a teenager dealing with problems at home.
This is true even for new teachers like Ajee Church, who is in his second year teaching chorus at Granby High School. He says it was his experience with his own high school chorus teacher that led him to pursue the profession.
“That showed me that I could be a chorus teacher and be happy with coming to work every day, loving what I do, and impact the lives of children the way that mine had been dramatically impacted,” says Church, who also serves on the school’s technology committee and as accompanist for Norfolk Public Schools’ Strolling Silver Strings performing group. “Students often do come with needs beyond academic education. This also plays a part in my reason of becoming a teacher.”
Music and other arts classes create a unique environment in which students may feel free to express themselves or reach out in a variety of ways. They may learn to trust a teacher and rely on them for support they can’t find elsewhere or, as Church says, “sometimes we’re just that listening ear or calming voice when no one else can be.”
“Music teachers have the role of being a teacher, accountant, counselor, musician and, in some cases, almost a second parent,” Church says. “I believe all teachers have many of these hats that they have to wear when working with students.”
Church must have had his “fixer” and “fundraiser” hats on in one case in which he learned of two students who were going to be unable to attend prom for financial and family reasons. He was able to work out a deal with one of the student’s employers for the purchase of an outfit and provide the other with a ticket through an anonymous donation.
“They are little things in the grand scheme of what teachers are willing to do for their students. I believe most teachers are more than willing to go above and beyond for their students after the students begin displaying signs of concern. Sometimes it feels like our impact is so tiny, but I’ve seen personally that even the little things we do for our children don’t go unnoticed.”
Amanda Pontifex; Courtesy of Virginia Beach Public Schools
Amanda Pontifex is a seasoned fifth grade teacher at Shelton Park Elementary in Virginia Beach. Her energetic and innovative teaching style and, above all, her tireless commitment to her students earned her the city’s Teacher of the Year recognition for 2018.
By now, Pontifex has learned that being prepared to adapt and take on a variety of roles to facilitate the growth of each student according to his or her needs is an integral part of the gig.
“Each day, I play parent, counselor, cheerleader, coach, assistant, educator, mentor, nourisher,” Pontifex says. “I believe that as an educator in this ever-changing world, it is my duty to differentiate, cultivate and inspire every child no matter their ability. Each morning I remind myself how lucky I am to have the opportunity to inspire, activate and access the minds of so many little humans.”
Engaging with students’ families in a consistent and meaningful way—whether to identify challenges or celebrate accomplishments—is one area that is critical to success for Pontifex and all teachers for whom key communication channels, particularly in the digital age, are never really closed. Teachers are almost always “on,” so to speak.
“When that relationship is strengthened,” Pontifex explains, “it is then that the work we are doing and the students’ conceptual understanding can be reinforced at home. I have witnessed the most growth in a child when everyone is involved, feels a sense of importance, knows their role and has a common goal in mind.”
Pontifex earned her school’s 2016–2017 Volunteer of the Year, having served as a board member and standing secretary for their Parent and Teacher Association (PTA), served on numerous committees and put in many hours before and after school tutoring for students who needed extra help.
“Before, I never fully understood the importance and role of the PTA. I never had an appreciation for what they actually did for the children of the school … My eyes have truly been opened to the countless hours of meeting, planning, budgeting, researching and time these parents, teachers and educators spend dedicated to student achievement.”
She is also a member of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and includes her students in projects with the organization. They actively participate in collecting data and the annual Clean the Bay Day.
“It’s important to not only educate children about the importance of volunteering within your community but to model enjoying it and living it as well. For me, being an invested member in my community goes hand in hand with my commitment to purposeful education.”
A commitment to purposeful education inevitably comes with a realization that the limited hours in the school day are just the beginning when it comes to lifting up the next generation. For every teacher who is also a volunteer, a mentor, a fundraiser, a translator or just a sympathetic ear, there is a student who is the better for it.