by Orly Mondell | 03.2.17
5-Minute PD is a series in which educators share some of the revelations that have helped shape their practice – and the stories behind how they arrived at those revelations. This one was written by educator Orly Mondell, a high school teacher in Baltimore, MD.
When I started teaching, I was 24. I was a Jewish kid from an Orthodox community in New Jersey where school and life were taken care of – I hadn’t even entered the real world yet. So having my first teaching experience be in the South Bronx, I learned very quickly what I grew up with that these kids didn’t.
Finding my way as a new teacher, I remembered the way my mom always encouraged me in school – and I wanted to be that for my students. I wanted to make sure they knew that not every kid is a straight-A student, but if you’re working to your greatest ability, whatever that is, I’ll honor you for that.
These days I teach at a high school in Baltimore. My focus is on helping meet the social-emotional needs of my students as they make the critical transition from middle school to high school. And they’re dealing with real hardships: many qualify for free or reduced lunch.
The importance of recognizing my students – their backgrounds, their experiences – all clicked into place for me one day when a student came to me and said, “I couldn’t do my homework last night.” When I asked her what happened, she answered, “We don’t have electricity and there were too many people in my house. I had to do my homework in the bathtub with a candle, and it just didn’t work.”
I stopped assigning her homework right away, and we figured something else out instead. This moment taught me something that has carried my practice ever since: that the best way to connect with my students – and the only way that makes sense – is to be kind and acknowledge each student as a person who has his or her own story.
Often we look at students with their heads down and assume they are disinterested, but adults need to be sensitive to their stories. Kids need a gentle voice and a kind word to help them see there are adults around them who care – because we don’t know if they have anyone at home asking how they are, if they’ve had breakfast, if they’re hungry. To me, teaching is about treating kids like individuals who come to a classroom with their own backgrounds and stories – just like we all do – and learning from and loving them.