The best teachers love watching their students learn and grow. “Michelle’s” energy and excitement are contagious as she talks about her 3 and 4 year old students and their progress despite their homeless situations. Our House is “a great place. This past year… it had to be the most amazing class I have ever taught,” she gushes. “You could actually see the ‘a-ha’ moments. They all want to come to school…They are so excited. They run down the hall to come to the classroom.”
With a teacher as enthusiastic and energized as Michelle, it’s easy to understand why the children would run to school. The children are “so full of energy, so willing to learn and they have a great foundation from the previous teachers that I could stretch” their learning even further, she says.
At Our House, it’s not just about the students, but also their parents. “We have a relationship with the parents and (understand) how much they want their children to succeed.” Michelle says the relationships between the teachers and the parents start at the very beginning of the year. The goal: to assist the parents so they can bring their children back to school. What makes a difference according to Michelle is “the consistency within the education department – it’s a familiar setting.”
The year might start off slow, with some children in the 3-to-4-year-old classroom not speaking for the first month. “The first month is very difficult, especially for the kids that have gone through a traumatic situation,” Michelle says.
“There has been so much happening with their lives that they are not comfortable with strangers, they are not comfortable with other kids, they have never played or shared.” Compound a new daily environment and new faces on top of ever changing night situations and you can begin to understand how hard it must be for children who are experiencing homelessness. The secure home foundation that so many students take for granted is not there for them.
But eventually, breakthroughs happen, at the right pace for each student. “The consistency and being able to keep them in the program is fantastic because in two or three months, (with) the same people the same routine… [the routine] really brings them out of their shells.” School becomes the place that provides the consistency, the stability, the foundation for many students’ lives. Over time, the ongoing interaction and daily work make a difference. “The kids we have now, they are very very intelligent because they had the consistency, because they have had the dedication, because they have had teachers who went to school be teachers.” The teachers at Our House really want to “help this age group, to help this community.”
What does this mean from the students’ perspective? “I would say they are going to be so ready for Kindergarten,” said Michelle. But it’s more than education, it’s also support. Part of serving this community is looking for ways to help the families so that they are able to bring their children to the school. Teachers and Family Services staff make sure that the transportation, health, and any other barriers are taken into account. Michelle says sometimes it’s as simple as just asking the question,“What do you need?”
Connecting with parents can be the hardest part of the job according to Michelle. “They have gone through so many things… they (may) have mental illnesses … they are ashamed of something, they don’t want to ask for anything.” Connection works best when the parents don’t feel as though “we are judging them whatsoever,” she notes. Our House teachers have completed training in the trauma-informed care model: training to help them interact with parents in a way that takes into account everything parents and children experiencing homelessness have been through. Connecting on a human level, asking about their job, their job search, or something as simple as mentioning a new haircut allows for a connection without criticizing. Our House provides shelter to live and education to thrive, thanks in large part their committed teachers who work with parents to provide the best learning environment for the children.
– By Jackie Cushman