by Tyler Belanga
Over the course of the last two years, I served as a Teaching Fellow with Citizen Schools, a U.S. non-profit that partners with struggling urban middle schools to expand the learning day. Specifically, I was assigned to the McCormack Middle School in Boston as part of a small cohort called 8th Grade Academy (8GA), the goal of which was to prepare students for success in high school and college. With almost zero teaching experience entering my service time in the program, I tried to keep my expectations low at the outset of year one. Little did I know that I was going to learn a great deal about myself, as well as acquire many best practices for educators that would lay the groundwork for a potential career in education. What makes 8GA such an inspiring and effective program, and one that I believe is worthy of widespread emulation, are three distinct things, all related to building relationships, that widen the scope of an educator’s role beyond just the classroom.
1) First and foremost, in 8GA there was an extraordinary emphasis placed on teacher-student relationships. How many thousands of enlightened educators have proclaimed this to be extremely important I do not know, but I will confirm here the veracity of the statement. In my experience, the element of trust is infinitely more effective than consequences or incentives in motivating students to learn and in keeping them on-track. However, most students can easily identify feigned interest; authenticity conveyed through honest and consistent dialogue is vital. An educator who cannot at least give the impression that he is interested and invested in the lives of his students should either enroll in acting classes or find another career, because the job cannot be successfully executed without this element.
8GA created an environment in which I could support my students not only academically, but also emotionally. From feelings of intellectual inadequacy, to problems with other students getting in the way of schoolwork, to serious personal conflicts that had not been shared with any other adult in the building, I encountered a vast array of issues that required addressing. I could not always solve these issues on the spot, but often it was only the knowledge that an adult was there for them that students truly needed. These one-on-one conversations also often lead to crucial dialogue about students’ careers and futures, which allowed me to give advice and tailor lessons concerning job skills, pathways to specific types of colleges, etc. to individual aspirations.
2) The second element that made 8GA successful was constant communication and collaboration between education professionals. This practice created a network of safety for students and one of mutual accountability among educators. Students cutting multiple classes were noticed and promptly pulled aside. Dissemination to the relevant teachers of information regarding discord in a student’s home life led to an increased sense of understanding and to more purposeful planning around that student. Weekly meetings to discuss a student in danger of falling off in one subject begot check-ins from teachers throughout the day to ensure that the student used all available free time to complete homework for that class.
The sharing of strategies in the classroom was particularly helpful for me, as I discovered that the struggles and frustrations even between dissimilar classes are often quite consistent. And if the math teacher has discovered the secret to getting a troublesome student to focus in class, why should this magic weapon be withheld at the expense of continued disruptions in all of the student’s other classes? There were countless instances in which veteran teachers gave me small pieces of advice that, when implemented, resulted in swift and tangible results in my own classroom. I worked with some of the best teachers in Boston who taught me, among many other things, that the further from an island mentality each teacher within a school has, the closer to a pedagogical paradise the school draws.
3) Finally, I learned in 8GA that being present and visible in the school community can have massively positive effects. Increased visibility can come in many forms, such as holding a potluck dinner during a monotonous time of year or attending a school play held after dismissal. When physical encounters are not possible, visibility can come in the form of a voice over the phone. For example, calling home to praise the performance of a normally difficult student after a particularly impressive showing in class can literally bring a parent to tears. The rewards of such minute but uncommon actions are often far greater than the efforts required to perform them.
It should be clear that a vastly important stakeholder comes into the picture here: families. Family involvement is an absolutely critical component in driving student success. A student who feels supported is typically a successful one, and deficiency in this area often leads to insurmountable problems in others. A great educator can have a profound impact on a young person, but it cannot be forgotten that a student spends the majority of his or her time at home. Many large urban schools struggle to establish a tight-knit feel, but I have seen pockets of heavy family involvement within a student population, and I believe it is possible to achieve in large school communities as a whole. The key seems to be making families feel as though they are a relevant part of the equation, which usually involves teachers taking the initiative to reach out.
It is my firm belief that the model of 8GA, which involves an adult serving as a mentor, therapist, teacher, outreach coordinator, and advocate to a group of students is a highly effective educational apparatus that can be used to drive student success, whether it is in the U.S. or on the other side of the world in Thailand. Although my days at Citizen Schools are now behind me, I plan to keep these three core values close as I begin teaching at Vajiravudh College in Bangkok. My role will not be the same; I will be teaching exclusively English and not College Prep. I will not be taking students off campus, nor will I make phone calls home to parents. I will undoubtedly experience some difficulty communicating with students and native coworkers.
All of this, however, simply means that I will have to work harder to forge bonds with the people at Vajiravudh College. I will still have ample time to build relationships with students by synchronizing our breaks and having lunch with them during the week. I will be working very closely with other teachers, especially veterans who have experience in a system that is completely new to me. Finally, I will have the opportunity to attend prayer assemblies in the morning and rugby matches after school, allowing me to be more visible in the school community. Although I am teaching abroad for the first time in my life, I look forward to growing as an education professional at Vajiravudh College and applying the valuable lessons I learned as a part of 8GA in the United States.