By Angello Villarreal, NJEA Preservice Political Action Co-Chair, Monmouth University Graduate Student, and Teacher Resident at Long Branch Public Schools

What would you do if you are substituting in a classroom, and not a single student speaks English? What if you obtain your dream teaching job, but there is that one student who makes every lesson a struggle? Imagine having a Back to School night session, but no parents attend. Those are a few of the questions and problems that preservice and new teachers might have when they step into the classroom. The first step is to recognize that our student population is growing more diverse every day, and we need to adapt to change.

As new teachers, we need to embrace every student’s identity and cultural and economic background to give them a voice in the classroom. Every student will bring their own unique experiences into school. Let’s remember: our students don’t care how much we know about the subject matter, lesson or what degree we have; they want to see that we care about them. Every student wants to feel valued, not that they are “slowing down” the class. We need to encourage and challenge our students while holding them accountable for their actions and decisions.

You know that student in the back corner of the classroom who does not want to listen, and interrupts every time you are trying to teach a lesson? Yes, that same student that sometimes sleeps in the classroom, yells jokes in the middle of the activities and makes your teaching day tricky. That student is the one that needs you the most.

How do I know? I was that student!

We need to go beyond our lessons and grades, and have a sociocultural and political consciousness, and realize how our students are affected by that. As educators, we must affirm diversity and understand that every student is different. We must learn more about our students, their families and communities.

Every child in our classrooms has their own set of problems. Whether it is learning a new language, adapting to a new culture, being different because of race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or other identity, or struggling economically every student needs their teachers to be their mentors: the people they can look up to. Be there for them, push them as much as you can, care for them, and listen to them.

As preservice and new teachers, we need to awaken our critical openness and reflection to understand that a child is not a stereotype. Set aside time to interact with and get to know each of your students—whether it is at lunch, before, or after class—to show them that you care about them beyond the lesson. Sometimes they had a great weekend, or they barely slept because they worked overnight after school. Even though some students do not speak your language, they often go through the same problems as you and your other students. Be there for them and listen to them; we might be the only ones who do.

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