When I was 4 years old I walked with my mother on a path that I had never taken before, not knowing where it would end. I trusted my mother but my imagination conjured up terrifying images of where this path would lead me. I am not sure what those images were but with each terrifying step, I somehow knew that this journey would not end well for me. That walked ended with me beginning my first day of school. My mum handed me over to this stranger whom I had never seen before. She tried to say good-bye but I would have nothing of it and burst into tears. The thought of leaving my mother and entering into the unknown of school scared me. With some coaxing and tender loving care, by mother and the teacher, I remember Miss Thompson slowly bending down gently taking my hand and guiding me into the classroom as my mother quietly left the classroom. Ms. Thompson allowed me to sit on the piano bench with her, arms around my shoulders as she motioned for the other children to join us. She made me feel safe and special. I survived that first day and many others over the ensuing years.
This school year is my 45th first day of school! I teach at an international school in Johannesburg and every day is unique and filled with adventure. The diversity of my classroom is exceptional. My students come from all around the world, from different religions, cultures, and ethnicities, speak different languages, come from different socioeconomic status, trying to understand who they are and find their place in the world. Many of them have had to cope with transition moving from country to country every two or three years. Some of them bring invisible baggage with them to the classroom – mental, physical or emotional problems.
It is my hope that every day will be a fantastic school day for each and every one my students but realistically I know that they will have bad days- days when learning is tough or when they struggle with relationships with their peers or family, days when the news of the day shakes the foundation of their world. It can be difficult being a young teenager and when life presents challenges, this can impede a student’s learning unless there is someone who reaches out to them and makes them feel special like Ms. Thompson made me feel on my very first day of school.
Teachers as advocates can offer students hope, openly supporting them in the classroom by speaking out against social injustices such as LGBTQ issues, DACA, or the Muslim ban, creating a culture that promotes social understanding and student efficacy in transforming the world in which they live. I am also able to provide emotional support as an advisor through the school’s advisory program. In doing so, I am able to foster meaningful relationships that create a sense of connectedness to the school that will allow my students to thrive academically.
So at 7:40, when the bell rings on the first day of school and students file into my room feeling anxious about school and what the year may bring, I want to be like Ms. Thompson, my kindergarten teacher, championing my students and supporting them by creating a space where they feel heard, where they feel valued and to know that I care for them and their future.