Laura Cugini, Manalapan-Englishtown Middle
School, 7th and 8th Grade Spanish
“When I was in middle and high school, I was on this path where I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to be an advocate and fight for causes I believed in. My dad always said, ‘Go be a teacher.’ Around my junior year I was a student mentor, and in that experience the light went off and seeing it helped me realize I wanted to be a teacher. Now I am finding that, though I am not a lawyer, I am in a position to advocate for my students, to fight for causes that I believe in and empower the students to speak up for themselves.
In the classrooms nowadays, there is a big stigma about being unique. We are not allowing students to be free to express their opinions, so that is something I try to bring out in my classroom. I find so much that we as educators forget: that these middle school students are just middle school kids. We expect so much from them. Of course we want them to meet standards and so forth, but we also have to remember at the same time that if the student is not getting it, it’s ok, and we just need to regroup and refocus.
When I was their age, I was just starting to get exposed to social media. It was the start of MySpace and Facebook, and we still had to log on to a computer to get these things. So it wasn’t like it was at our fingertips to see what everybody else was doing. So there was still this independence of thought to where I was able to keep myself in check before moving forward. Now kids have phones and computers and tablets when they are in elementary school, so they are born thinking, ‘Well I am this big, what about the rest of the world? What do I need to keep up with?’ And there is so much trying to keep up and compete. It is overwhelming for them. I am concerned that some of these students are not able to see their own abilities, their own independence, their own self-worth. They are so focused on what everybody else is doing, and what they don’t have, versus seeing all that they do have.
It’s important that they can write, read and speak Spanish: that is why they are in my class. But my concern is that they are losing communication with English, because they are blinded by their phones, only talking through their thumbs, through text.
I try to restore the lost art of communication. For example, as their parting gift for the year (aside from signing their yearbooks), I had 92 this year, and all 92 students went home with a handwritten letter from me, just to tell them ‘Thank you,’ just to tell them that I appreciated them. It’s not typed out, but actually something meaningful, handwritten, telling them that they matter. It doesn’t matter what is happening on TV or what is happening on social media, but that they are all seen. My mom would write me letters when I prepared for big tests, or if I was having a rough time, I would find something in my lunch. My dad did the same thing, so it was prominent in my family. They are so meaningful to me, and I still have all of them, and on a rainy day I can go and reflect on them. I wanted my kids to walk away with something physical from me. It’s a scary world out there. We all are human, we all want love, and every students matters. If they all can walk away from my classroom knowing that they are appreciated, then I have done my job.