New teacher diaries

Ana’s story

New Teacher Diaries

We were barely into the second week of September in my ESL 3rd-grade class when I taught a lesson for Writer’s Workshop. The teaching point was about how writers collect entries by thinking about moments that make us sad, angry or upset. I had anticipated that the students would have difficulty finding the words and language to express such moments from their lives, and how this in itself posed potential for anxiety and discomfort. But I hadn’t prepared myself for what did happen.

Everyone had just finished sharing their thoughts with their partners when I called on a few students to share. The first student talked about how he gets angry when his older brother blocks the TV set. The second, a quiet girl named Ana who was sitting in the back of the group on the carpet, started to tell us how her uncles had been fighting and then it was just sobs and broken words … angry … on the bed … yelling … jail in Texas … Everyone sat in silence as two girls crawled over to hold her. A few quickly and quietly called out that they, too, had uncles and cousins now in jail.

I sat there, not sure what to do. Do I call her over? Go over to her? Is it right to put my arm around her? How do I not lose the class or the point of the lesson and yet not seem cold, uncomfortable or out of control? I decided to call her to the front where I was. I put my arm around her as she decided to continue telling her story. In helping her find the words, she began to describe, in such simple terms, a truly difficult and painful event. Her uncle who had been living with Ana had been fighting with his girlfriend—yelling and hitting each other; their malnourished baby girl was crying in the kitchen. Ana had been hiding in the bathroom. Special men in suits, she said, not police, came days later to take him to a jail in Texas. She couldn’t remember their name, but it quickly became clear they were immigration authorities. Her uncle’s girlfriend had called the police, which resulted in deportation proceedings. The uncle was just days away from never seeing Ana again.

Clearly, her tears had come not just from sadness, but from real terror as well. Her mother had made her promise not to tell anyone, I assumed out of fear that immigration might be alerted to look more closely at the rest of the family or because she might thinkAna was in physical danger.

I held Ana and thanked her for sharing this with us. I told the class that this was a safe place to bring stories and things like this that may be bothering us. And, yes, I told them that writing can actually help us to work through the pain and emotions we feel.

Everyone, now quiet and somber, went to their seats to begin working. Soon after, a math teacher who covers my prep period walked in. I decided to use the opportunity to take Ana to the guidance counselor. I couldn’t take the chance that this was an issue heavily weighing on her and that it was possibly part of other violence in her home. Plus, Ana would be more able to tell her story in her first language, no doubt more comfortable for her.

As we entered the office, I was surprised and moved when Ana told the guidance counselor that she wanted me to stay with her as she told her story again in greater depth. Suddenly, I was no longer just some unsure new teacher. In that moment, I became aware that I was not only a teacher, but an adult that she trusted and felt safe with.

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