A lesson in the influence of a teacher from Ms. Vacovsky, after her opportunity to teach in Spain: 

Teaching English in Spain has been an incredible experience. I have learned so much and have been able to observe some of the differences between public education in Spain and America.

 

I want to focus on a single experience I had and before I can tell this story, I need to give a little bit of context. There is a population of "gypsy" students in the school I teach in. I'm not sure if I have a fully accurate idea of what the word 'gypsy' means here in Spain, but I will do my best to explain what I have personally observed so far. This 'gypsy population' is made up of immigrants from Romania. Spanish culture is not politically correct like we are used to in America, so the teachers didn't think twice about telling me, "these students are gypsies".

 

Sometimes this would be followed by statements such as, "they don't know any English" or "they don't want to learn". To the Spanish people, gypsies are known for not wanting to follow rules/laws and not placing very much importance on education. Because of this, the Spanish government pays gypsy families to send their children to school (again, this is what people here have told me, so I don't know the details or the extent of truth in this). Many of these students do not have good attendance records and are known for being class clowns or simply not doing any work. Teachers would often tell me about 'these students' in the beginning of class when any other students could easily hear. I felt uncomfortable hearing teachers so blatantly label students, especially outside of the walls of the teachers lounge. I would politely nod my head and smile and then go on to teach my lesson, noticing that what the teachers had told me about those students seemed to be generally true. I made an effort to include all of my students and held high expectations of each child. This was difficult, as some of these students had little to no knowledge of English and often had workbooks to complete instead of the activity that the rest of the class was doing. Read that again. Some of these students had workbooks to complete instead of the same activity as the rest of their peers. 

In the class where this particular experience occurred, there are two "gypsies", who were seated together in the far back corner. For the purpose of this post, I will call them Ana and Fernando. The teacher had asked me to lead an activity she had prepared for the students to learn new vocabulary words. Every student had a worksheet with a picture for each vocabulary word. I would say a word and the students had to find the matching picture, cut it out, glue it in their notebook, and write the word next to the picture. Most students were doing fine with this exercise. Ana and Fernando were talking to each other and not even attempting to do the activity. I was walking around to check on all the students and told Ana and Fernando the directions, very slowly, using lots of hand gestures, and some Spanish (which I'm technically not supposed to do). I would give a one-step direction like, "get your notebook out" and walk away when I felt confident they understood, returning when I saw they had completed the task, or returning to remind them to complete the task. When we finally got to the point where they understood that they needed to cut their pictures out, they told me they did not have scissors. I asked the teacher if there were extra scissors they could use. She looks at me and says, more or less, "For them? Don't worry about them. They don't want to learn". All of the children in the class could hear this. At this point I just wanted to cry. I was absolutely shocked that a teacher could say something like that about a student. Not only say it, but say it to the child's face, with the rest of the class listening. I cannot imagine how humiliating it would be to endure that. I could not imagine someone telling me that I was not worth education.

I'm having a hard time writing this post because it's such a complex issue, with so many facets to it and I don't believe that there is any one right perspective. Previous to this experience, I had been a little taken aback by teachers' descriptions of the 'gypsy students' and recognized the stereotype. Here is a teacher; her job is to teach all of her students, yet she is deciding what *children* have the capacity to learn;  therefore, she does not want to "waste" her time trying to teach them. As the lesson went on, I found that her opinion of those students was so very wrong.

After sharing her opinion in English, the teacher then scolds the two students in Spanish. In spite of telling me not to worry about Ana and Fernando, the teacher eventually got scissors so they could participate.I continued to walk around the classroom, always checking back in with Ana and Fernando to give them the next direction or repeat the previous direction. By doing this, I showed them that I cared, that I believed they could do it, and that I expected them to participate just like all of their classmates. The message was clear to them, even though we speak different languages. About halfway through the activity, Fernando calls my name across the classroom and asks, "like this?" He may have asked me in Spanish, I can't remember. It didn't really matter because in this moment I knew that these students DID want to learn, it only took a little belief for them to show it. They had done the first few steps of the activity correctly and continued to participate and they checked in with me throughout the rest of the activity.

How this teacher labeled her students is not okay, not even once on a bad day. From my current perspective, it seems as if some of the 'gypsy students' might act this way because of the stereotype that is imposed upon them. If you felt that your teacher didn't want to even try to teach you because it was a waste of her time, would you try to learn? This was a heartbreaking realization for me and the first time I have really been able to see the effects of discrimination first hand. I have been fortunate enough to attend schools with overall great teachers and to teach in schools alongside teachers who try their hardest to teach every child, no matter how "difficult" he/she may be. The only thing I can do right now is to share this story and continue teaching all my students with the belief that they can learn in hopes that my attitude will be contagious.

 

When children feel connected to their teachers, it cultivates a classroom built on a foundation of trust and love. I teach you because I love you, I set boundaries for you because I love you. Children follow the lead of their teachers when they trust them and feel safe, which creates so much space for growth and learning. Connection paves the way for the freedom to take risks and make mistakes, which is how we learn. Not just learning to memorize something for the sake of pleasing an adult, but learning in meaningful ways that create a deep, lasting understanding that empowers us to always keep growing our brains, our hearts, and our bodies.

 

My advice for teachers? Take time to think about what the child may be thinking or feeling when they do something that you may instinctively see as "wrong". Before you react, think. Think about how you want the child to feel at the end of the interaction. Think about what you want the child to learn about themselves, about you, about their world. The way you respond to each moment in the classroom lasts way longer than a moment, so make every interaction count.

-Ellie Vacovsky, PREK1 Reggio Educator

Hunt Valley, MD | Reggio and Co.