One day, early in the school year, Juan walked in late to class, he didn’t say much to me and sat by himself. I knew that something was going on with him. Juan is an ESL student and it became evident to me that he had a lot of extra baggage. The baggage happened to be that both of his parents had recently passed away and he was sent to his grandfather that lives in the United States. I knew that, in order to understand what was going on with him, I needed to begin a connection with him to form a good student/teacher relationship.
As teachers, we realize that the student/teacher relationship is crucial to the well-being of each student. I found that the relationship was crucial to my high school ESL students, each who has their own story to tell: a story that affects how they learn each day. Since I have been working with this diverse population of ESL students, I have realized how important it is to nurture the student/teacher relationship and to practice empathy. Many of these students have come from difficult backgrounds and have varying developmental stages that affect them daily. Many days the students are going through emotionally or mentally tough situations. When this happens, it makes teaching difficult because of the instability in the environment.
Over the years teaching ESL students has not been an easy task. All the time and hard work has been worth it, though. It is so rewarding to know that I bring to the relationship not only knowledge but someone to talk to when they need a trusting adult. All of us know that teaching is not just about lesson planning; it is also about being there for our students through their highs and lows.
Here are strategies I use when I am making a connection to students to form the student/teacher bond:
- I let my students know early on in the school year that they can trust me and can talk to me when they need advice or someone to listen to them. This helps to open the door for me to understand their background.
- As they come to class I check on my students to ensure they are ok: mentally, emotionally and physically.
- Those students who seem to be struggling the most, I speak to them privately.
- I always have an open door policy so that the students can have someone to talk to without judgement.
Any kind of classroom, in any kind of setting includes students with backgrounds and challenges that impact learning, and these strategies apply just about everywhere. But, as I have learned, there are some contexts in which they will rise to a whole new level of importance. From where I sit (or teach), I see that, with the influx of diverse populations from all over the world comes more challenges. No one knows what each student has been through and how it may impact him or her each day. Having the understanding that each student’s background can be critical to their learning potential is, I think, the first step in helping them learn.
Many times students do not want to learn because of their background and where they came from. They could be more focused on working to help provide for their families. They could be more focused on what has happened to their family. They may even have a longing to go back to the country they came from. Once I properly factored into my approach that the ESL students have issues that impact their learning, it became easier to help their journey of learning begin.
Connecting with a students’ story can have a dramatic domino effect. When the students know that I care and want to know what they have been through, they open up to me. Once they open up they usually begin to prosper and complete assignments. Many students need me to sit with them and help them, something they may not have had before and they appreciate it.
So I encourage you, whether your students are from around the world, or from around the block, get to know their stories, and make a personal connection. The results may astonish you.
Samantha is a High School Biology and Anatomy teacher in NJ for the last 10 years. She teaches Biology, Anatomy and ESL Biology.
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