More Than Hugs and Smiles

The summer of 2021, I taught a month of English classes to twenty-eight rambunctious third-graders in the Dominican Republic. During my intern orientation at Freedom Christian School, I was told, “You will be immersed in a challenging environment.” It turns out they meant “immersed” in the Baptist sense. After only two days of training, I was in my own classroom. I quickly learned the challenge of that environment could be summed up in just a few words—a few names, actually. I inherited a class full of troublemakers, but the same children that caused me to pray, “Lord, have mercy!” every morning, were the same children that positively transformed my understanding of love. 

 Yueri was a nine-year-old who came from an abusive home and never let any of his teachers touch him. My intern predecessor, Miss Josie, warned me that Yueri spent most of class in the corner for his outbursts of anger. Ironically, when Miss Josie announced her departure, it was Yeuri who ran to give her the tearful hug that initiated a flood of affectionate students. “Some people only pay attention to the cuddly kids,” she sighed. “They don’t know how much the difficult ones need someone to care about them.” As I began my first week of teaching, I resolved not to be part of that “some people” and determined to love my “Yueris” with all I had. However, my definition of love was deeply flawed. Arguing that I was making loving allowance for my students’ derelict upbringing, I shirked my duty to discipline and focused solely on positive reinforcement. Chaos ensued. Far from giving me hugs, my troublemakers were stomping right over me, but I stubbornly (and unwisely) maintained my approach. 

One humiliating afternoon, things came to a head when a well-intentioned activity turned into a disaster. Instead of calmly walking to their respective teams for a class competition, my students were screaming and running around the room. I battled the urge to scream right along with them. “Miss Avery,” whispered my supervisor, “I believe you may have lost control of your classroom.” Well, that was obvious! “You could have other teachers tell your kids to respect you,” he added, more seriously, “but the class never will respect you unless you act with integrity and personally enforce it. If you love these students, you will not let them continue to defy authority.”

In that moment, I finally understood: I was not loving my students. Loving others means doing what is best for them—challenging their misconduct, not ignoring it. I was not unlike my troublemakers’ negligent parents, who watched passively as their children’s character eroded, then erupted with angry shouts or violence when personally irritated by the bad behavior of the next generation. For Yueri, faithful correction was the proof that Miss Josie cared; my love was mere words, smiles, and ambition. But not any longer.

On my road of recovery, I learned to teach and love with clear expectations, a balance of praise and discipline, and responsibility. I began consciously evaluating what I asked students to do, which prevented me from making unnecessary rules that I was not prepared to enforce. Instead of repeatedly imploring that desks be cleaned before class (and waiting as students chatted and procrastinated), I began using timers to give a definite deadline for the task. I gave my troublemakers coveted responsibilities. Soon they were too busy reveling in the privilege of demolishing my chalkboard exercises to think of any fresh schemes. 

My time in the Dominican Republic taught me many things, but those hard lessons learned in English class were some of the most valuable. Each time I embark on a new teaching adventure, I am thankful to have been equipped by my little miscreants to know how to love with more than hugs and smiles. 

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