Do you ever stop and reflect after a few years of teaching what or who’s influenced you the most? Has it been the hours of staff development behind you? Your mentors, colleagues or your cute students? Has it been the methodology your school has drilled into your head? Maybe the many hours of planning and collaboration? Have the long after school meetings influenced you to become the teacher you are today? One of my biggest career influences has been a non reading second grader by the name of Reyna and her wonderful family that came to the rescue because I asked nicely.
Reyna was a beautiful smiling child who was social enough at the appropriate times and always polite to her classmates. Although her clothes were sometimes tattered, they were always clean and ironed. She came to school with a perfect pink bow in her immaculately brushed long hair. If you peeked in my room, she wouldn’t stand out as anything other than a cute kid.
Reyna was the youngest of five girls from a limited income Hispanic home in East Dallas. Every kid was a second language learner, as I once had been. I had met mom and dad on brief ocassions at the beginning of school. Their limited income was abundantly supplemented with the love and devotion they had towards their children.
On one of those brief meetings with mom, I had a stern look of concern on my face as I flat out declared her kid didn’t know how to read. I gave mom no context nor did I ease her into this news. I didn’t lead off with any of her child’s wonderful qualities and simply hit her over the head with the reality that, it turns out, mom lives with everyday as she is also a non reader. Armed with these offputting news, I requested that mom take her child often to the library and that she get her interested in books because if not, we would lose her in second grade. Mom nodded in agreement as the new teacher made his demands and then dismissed her.
Back in the classroom, I continued with my 2nd grade lessons while trying to accommodate Reyna, a child who wasn’t engaging in my lessons because she couldn’t make sense of the words in the text. She could identify the letters on the page and understand most of their sounds. She benefitted greatly from our readalouds, but I knew she was still falling greatly behind. I never found enough time in my day for the one on one blending lessons she needed. I sought out the help and advice of colleagues, books, the school intervention team, but nothing or very little seemed to be getting through.
Reyna was very stuck, with me right along with her! A few months into my second year of teaching I felt completely over my head with this challenge. I couldn’t accept defeat. I asked myself “how do master teachers handle this?” My motto when teaching is always “I chose them, they didn’t choose me.” I thought about Reyna even after I had gone home. I played in my mind the checklist of all the possible things I had learned you do with a ‘stuck’ learner and I truly felt I had tried everything.
The next morning I observed my group of kiddos coming in to class, all having their own idiosyncracies and tics. Nicolas just simply didn’t have time for learning because all he wanted to do was play. Alfredo would simply choose to stare at the wall during my lessons with what I suspected was some form of autism. Jessica was way too preocuppied with making friends and fitting in to achieve more than the minimum I required. Mario was lacking sleep. There was hardly anyone in the room that didn’t need intervention, and I more or less knew how to help them. But the one with most urgency to me was Reyna.
I called her mom that morning and asked she meet with me as soon as possible and if she could bring the family. I conveyed the same urgency you would if you were the nurse calling home to notify of a child’s broken arm. To my delight, mom showed up that afternoon after school with not only her husband but also two teenage daughters. I began this time by letting them know what a great kid Reyna was, with her engagement and love for the class. I explained that second grade was a crucial grade for reading comprehension and that I considered it a springboard for the rest of her education. Halfway through second grade, a child should be exploring different books and genres. They should be getting a taste of what types of stories they want to read and write and having fun while doing it. They shouldn’t be struggling with what sounds come from /j/ and /g./ The types of academic struggles and frustrations Reyna was facing were precursors for future school dropout, or at the minimum: a complete hatred for school. I explained to them all that I needed them on board completely and that together going forward we would be “Team Reyna.” I didn’t see any major enthusiasm coming from any of them other than nodding and smiling, but at least I tried.
Imagine my delight a few days later when a radiant Reyna comes in happier than I’ve ever seen her. She tells me her sisters went to the mall with her and bought her books! Dad’s been taking her to the library! Mom could pick her up from school now because she was able to change her hours at work! It was beyond anything I could’ve hoped for. I felt like I had won the lottery and had to tell everyone. This was before the days of social media. Otherwise, I would’ve given myself a big ol’ Facebook praise celebration!
Reyna has turned out to be one of my biggest success stories since I began teaching in 1998. The rest of the year with her was absolutely magical. The tutoring time I could spare was more productive than ever. She began associating the sounds and blending them into words. Those words slowly but surely became sentences. The turnaround was miraculous to say the least. One day before the end of the school year, Reyna raised her hand indicating she wanted a turn to read to the class. As I heard her chant the lines of the lazy farm animals in The Little Red Hen, my heart swelled up with joy, and my eyes with tiny tears.
The thing about second graders is that if they trust and love you enough, they’ll pretty much believe anything you tell them. To them, that was the day I hit my elbow against the desk and nothing more. To me, it was the day I learned the true power of the parent-teacher-child relationship.