Teaching can be humanizing work. This is how it happens.
The Rodriguez family walks down the hall and turns the corner to my room. "Buenos Dias, Mrs. Rodriguez. Buenos Dias, niños! ¿Como estan ustedes? Welcome to my classroom," I greet them.
We sit down in a circle of chairs and smile at each other. I begin by looking at the oldest child, a high school student, who looks timidly back at me. "Will you translate for us?" I ask.
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In the beginning, I do most of the talking. I describe her child's progress in math and ask, "Do you have any questions or comments?" She looks at me with a silent, shy smile. I move on to reading and writing, asking again for questions and receiving the same smile.
At the end, she does most of the talking. "Our life is hard. My husband works out of town, wherever he can find work," she said. "I clean houses. I work many hours. Our house is small and we are many. I want my children to learn so they can have a better life. Please tell me how to help my children learn."
This is how my heart grows. It grows larger because Mrs. Rodriguez and I sit down with each other. We talk and we listen.
Yes, teaching can be humanizing work.
It happens this way, too.
I'm reading Roald Dahl's classic children's book James and the Giant Peach aloud for the first time, and my listeners are spellbound by the story, especially the part where the very small old man opens the bag filled with magical crocodile tongues that will help a barren, broken peach tree grow fruit as big as a house.
"There's more power and magic in those things in there than in all the rest of the world put together," says the man.
While I am reading about the James in the story, I am working with a James in one of my Response to Intervention (RTI) reading groups.
My student James is 10 years old and in the fourth grade. He's growing up in economic poverty. According to Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund, this poverty makes him less healthy, less likely to graduate from high school, and less likely to develop emotionally and intellectually at the same pace as his peers who are not poor. It is a rotten, abusive poverty.
James wrote a poem that reflects the world as he sees and lives it:
Anger is red and black,
It smells like gunpowder,
It tastes like bullets,
It sounds like a shot,
It feels like a sharp knife,
It lives in fear.
This is how my heart grows. It grows larger because because James and I read together and imagine a future where he is a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, a dad...a future where he becomes whatever he dreams to be.
The Rodriguez family, James, and so many of my students and families have helped me become more human. I see the world more clearly, feel the world more deeply, and touch the world more compassionately because of them.
Every day, I try to pass on this humanity to my students, my school, my community, my state, my country, and my world. It is my great hope that my students not only will learn the language arts, math, science, social studies, physical education, art, and music, but also will learn to have broad minds and big hearts.
If they do, the world can become a better place. This is how it happens.
Editor's Note: If you would like to help a teacher in Trevor's home state of South Carolina, reach out to Mrs. Owens. She is an inspiring teacher at a high-poverty rural school and is in need of school supplies for her students. Here's how you can help!
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Trevor Scott Barton is an elementary school teacher in South Carolina. He is also a blogger for the Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.