Franklin County Teacher of the Year’s hope for a student living in poverty

Story by Brenda LaVerdiere, 2015 Franklin County Teacher of the Year and  finalist for the Maine Teacher of the Year. Read original article on the Bangor Daily News website here.

Imagine that you are a fourth grade teacher working in an economically deprived school in the foothills of western Maine. You teach in a small town where the factory and farming jobs that used to be the economic engine of your community no longer exist. In this once thriving community, many parents now struggle to find jobs that pay a living wage. Many parents struggle to buy school supplies and clothes for their children.

And too many struggle to put food on the table or to keep their homes warm during the long, cold winter months.

On a blustery, cold day in November, you welcome a new student, a 9-year-old boy who tells you that he and his family have just driven across the country to live in his aunt’s small apartment. He shares one bedroom with his mother and two younger siblings, and hopes that one day he will have his own bedroom or at least his own bed.

He seems fearful, distant and sad much of the time. He is living in poverty. As his teacher you realize that building a relationship with this child will be critical, but it will take time.

Weeks pass, and your new student slowly begins to feel more comfortable in his new surroundings. One morning he strides into school, wide-eyed, sporting an unfamiliar but welcome spring in his step. Clearly, something exciting has happened.

You greet him with a cheerful, “Good morning,” and wait for him to tell his story. With care, he puts his boots and winter coat into his locker and then turns and approaches you. “I am so happy,” he squeals. “My mom went to Walmart last night and bought an air mattress for me! I don’t have to sleep on the floor any more!”

You are elated. Your heart races because you realize that you are witnessing pure joy. You also know that the mattress represents many hours of working two jobs. Pure and simple, this is an unselfish act of love —  one that has hit its target and made a difference in the life of this little boy.

Imagine that your new student is very quiet and sad. He cries a lot and tells you that he is struggling to make friends. You investigate his concerns and facilitate multiple peer mediations. He struggles with deep emotions and has great difficulty understanding how to make friends.

As you build a relationship, you want him to know that you care about his goals, his passions and his family. At first, he is very guarded, but he slowly opens up as he gains confidence and a sense of trust.

You teach him about the framework “habits of mind” and explain that people who use these habits are better prepared to handle challenges in school and in life.

  • persist,
  • manage impulsivity,
  • listen with empathy,
  • think flexibly,
  • use metacognition,
  • strive for accuracy,
  • ask questions and pose problems,
  • apply knowledge,
  • take responsible risks, and
  • think and solve problems interdependently.

Using “habits of mind” cultivates a positive classroom culture in which students are excited about learning, and it become a collaborative adventure, even for your new student.

Eager for new challenges, your students are ready for project-based learning. Having just finished a book with a medieval theme, you, as a teacher, prompt your students to choose any aspect of medieval times and compare how life in medieval times is the same or different from life today. Their final product will be presented to an audience of students, teachers and parents. Students choose their topics, and most decide to work in small groups. Your new student decides to go solo.

For the first time since his arrival, your new student is energized. He has chosen to research medieval ships. He has a deep passion for marine history, and he can’t wait to get started. He is in his happy place and is determined to become an expert in the field of marine history.

After weeks of research, students are ready to share their findings. Each child is dressed in medieval garb, and each group proudly steps onto the stage to showcase their learning. The expert on marine history sits on the side of the stage sobbing.

The audience waits, but he is too upset to move. When asked what is wrong, he sobs that his mother promised that she would be there for his presentation and that he can’t do it without her. You scramble to make a phone call, when suddenly she arrives. Your new student wipes away the tears, runs to his mother and gives her a big bear hug.

Now, he is ready to go. He doesn’t realize that Mom has rushed to school from one job, and has just enough time to be there for him before she rushes off to job No. 2. All he knows is that his mother is there, and, in this moment, that is all that matters.

Your new student has been transformed into an articulate, passionate little professor. He enjoys sharing his understandings and responds to questions with authority. What a privilege it has been to help this amazing child evolve from an emotionally fragile learner to a confident, well-informed scholar. This is a moment you hope he will never forget.

But you will never know because his family, in pursuit of another job, a better life, will move again.

You feel sadness because you know that this next move may not be his last. You wonder what will happen to him as he drifts from school to school. You have witnessed an amazing transformation, and you know that he has the drive and the potential to pull himself out of poverty.

You wonder if he will have the stamina to start over again, and again. Your heartfelt wish is that the pride he felt in that moment when he was the “expert” becomes his glimmer of hope to build a better, brighter future.