To work in a school is to make magic

By Viktoria Wargo

Editor’s note: As this edition of the Review went to press on April 15, it was not clear when school buildings would re-open. While closed, custodians sanitized buildings, cafeteria staff prepared meals and distributed them at the roadside, bus drivers delivered some of those meals, and teachers and paraprofessionals used every tool at their disposal to teach their students remotely. Secretaries, administrators and others worked from home to keep everything going. In many communities, teachers missed their students so much that they created ad hoc parades waving to school community families from their decorated cars.

All of this points to the magical places that schools truly are. A 2018-19 county teacher of the year, Viktoria Wargo has known this for a long time—penning this article early in the winter, long before anyone knew what late March would bring.

Have you ever planned a trip to Disney? I bet one of the things you look forward to is the “magic”! Do you imagine entering the park and seeing Mickey Mouse himself?

How about standing in line to interact with your favorite character? Even better—what about the magical moment you get a high five, fist bump, or best of all—an embrace! Wow, that is really something special, isn’t it?

The funny thing is, I imagine our schools to be our very own version of Disney.

The start of each school day holds new opportunities to capture and remember special moments.

The Sunrise Symphony

I teach in an elementary school. My favorite part of every single day is the morning arrival. I use my eyes and ears to enjoy these moments, but it is my heart that is truly touched. Every morning, teachers line up for what I call “The Sunrise Symphony.”

The first movement begins with the faculty and staff long before the buses even pull into the parking lot. Our custodians enter the buildings before everyone else. They unlock doors, turn on lights, and check the building to ensure safety for all. Then come the teachers, instructional assistants, therapists, case managers, secretaries, nurses and administration.

Upon arrival, all begin to prepare for the new day. Some work silently, while others enjoy a few moments to catch up on a colleague’s prior evening. Photocopies are made, computers and projectors turned on, lessons are looked over one last time, emails are checked, and rooms are assessed to make certain all is in proper order to welcome our students. The hustle and bustle of a new day is on the horizon.

The second movement

The second movement of our symphony begins with the “take your places for the curtain” line-up. Some teachers stand outside and greet the children, others have posts throughout the halls, while some stand at their classroom doors. Some have clipboards or photocopies in hand, some hold their morning coffee. Some are not teachers but are no less part of the magic as the curtain rises. All have beaming smiles on their faces from ear to ear.

I see children looking out their bus windows through the seasons. Sometimes there is sun, other times there is rain, and then there are few days in New Jersey when we have snow falling. If you stop for the briefest of moments to look at those faces through the windows, angelic and filled with anticipation, you may need to catch your breath as the magnitude of your job almost stops your heart. There are hundreds of children awaiting their “village” to provide for them.

The term “village” is important. Together, we are a village. With some students, we are a known and very large part of their village, and, with others, we may not even realize the profound impact we have made until years later. Whatever your role for your students, be proud of your opportunity to be a part of their village.

For many students, the hero in their day is an educational support professional such as these food service professionals in Gloucester Township.

The bus doors open, and the children exit. Of course, it’s not all glitter and rainbows. There are children who exit the bus with their heads down or with stoic faces. But the vast majority of our children skip off their buses, backpacks in tow, full of anticipation and wearing their biggest smiles. They giggle and chatter. Some hold hands while others engage in a little horseplay that just stays within the lines of having fun without pushing the limits.

It is also thrilling to see some children walking with their noses up to a book, engrossed in a story that they just cannot tear their eyes from. I honestly feel blessed to have the opportunity to witness this each day.

The third movement

The smiles are just the beginning of the magic. Which leads us to our third movement, my personal favorite, the excitement and anticipation of the magical moments in full crescendo!

Students are greeted by their heroes. It may sound over-the-top, but let’s be honest and embrace the thought. Heroes are regarded as role models, they are courageous, they have special abilities; heroes are humble, patient, caring and selfless. Those who work in schools hold all those qualities and more.

This is the time to really pause and embrace the moments. I imagine tapping the “SLO-MO” button on my phone’s video app. Everything is intensified into these extraordinary moments. I see them as small vignettes. Students running into the arms of their teachers for that embrace that can only be shared between them. For some students the hero is a beloved custodian, school secretary, nurse, counselor, or aide. The hero might be the bus driver who greeted them before they even arrived at school or those in the cafeteria serving breakfast and lunch. All are part of the symphony that is the school day.

In my elementary school, teachers bend at the knees and kneel to be at the same level with the children. Of course, at this age, there are unending hugs. For those who work in the intermediate through high school levels, the moments are likely more of a high five, pat on the back or fist bump.

The special part of this movement in the symphony is that it is completely kinesic, all communication through movements and gestures; no verbal exchanges are needed. Think about that for a moment. How many of these kinesic moments do we share a day with our students?

Science, like every subject, offers countless opportunities to share joy for Brick High School chemistry teacher Maria DeBruin and her students, as in this lesson where surface tension and air pressure keep two young volunteers from getting soaked. She and her students were featured on Classroom Close-up, NJ in 2019.

The fourth movement

Onto the fourth and final movement—making history! While it may sound far-fetched, every single day in your classroom, you are making history. In addition to the morning greetings, I love to walk through the halls and simply listen for the tiny snippets of a lesson or interactions between teachers and their students.

From these moments, I sometimes learn new information, other times I take away a different perspective on something I already knew. I also like to find a new classroom management strategy or mindfulness approach.

I am definitely the teacher who “steals” ideas. There are times I cannot help but giggle over something hilarious I hear from a teacher or student. From elementary school to intermediate and middle to high school, the exchanges one hears differ drastically, however the core is the same, and that is the beauty of education.

The postlude

My reason for writing this is to remind you to slow down and take a moment to look around. There will be days when we do not “feel” the magic; we are human and that is OK. But I want you to realize that these interactions that seem to be the norm should not be taken for granted. Never underestimate the value in the relationships that we create with our students. Appreciate those authentic moments.

Take pride in the job you do each day. Make sure you laugh—humor is cathartic. Simply put, change your perception and remember to focus on what is at the center of what we do: our students.

I recently heard a student comment that it was not until his senior year in high school when he had a teacher who connected with him. She took the time to get to know him. She was relatable, vulnerable and shared that she too was human. The reason he never skipped her class was that she made school feel like “home.”

On one side, I was saddened  to hear that it took 12 years for this student to have a connection with a teacher. I sit here thinking that the interactions and relationships I observe everyday are the norm for all students; sadly, it is not. On the other side, I thought of how I personally have always called my classroom my second home. I hope that there are millions of children who come to school and feel that safety and comfort.

Magic moments happen throughout the school day. Cynthia Samuel, a school nurse in Irvington enjoys a “routine” moment with a student.

We may not make the money that others do, but we do indeed make the magic. There are days that we face challenges with our students, but those days pale in comparison to the number of days that we laugh. We get to enjoy children who are honest, genuine, and amazing people. We laugh, at times we cry, we hug, we cheer, we celebrate, sometimes we yell, we work tirelessly, and we love unconditionally.

I have found myself dancing around my classroom to the song “Born to Be Alive,” or belting out “Let it Go” at the top of my lungs with my students on pajama day while saying to my colleagues, “Do you believe we get paid to do this?”

I feel blessed to be able to say that I truly love my job. There are not many people in the world who share this sentiment. I also feel like I can say with confidence, that despite the external challenges we face as teachers, once we are in our schools, doing what we are passionate about, we are richer than most.

Viktoria Wargo is a special education teacher at Triangle School in Hillsborough. She is the 2018-19 Somerset County Teacher of the Year. She can be reached at tori.wargo@hotmail.com.

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