Ninnette Varisco, Metairie Park Country Day School Teacher and DEI Coordinator
My 30th school year began with a visit from a former student. I had taught her many years ago, and this year I would have the privilege of teaching her child. Although she is now an adult with several degrees behind her name, I remember her well as a young child. She was incredibly creative and was one of those children who was always inventing something. In one of my treasure boxes, I still have artwork from her that was mailed to me in envelopes that she carefully crafted out of pages from a magazine. How she was able to fold it just right so that her preferred images were in just the right place? I’ll never know. But as the recipient, I was struck by this little person whose brain worked in such fascinating ways.
Her bright nature and wide creative streak were not the only reasons that I remember her so well. Although it was about two decades ago, I recall the adults who were in her life then, and I see them interact with their grandchild now. I feel a connection to them as a family, and I believe this is so because we did not spend nine or ten months of school life together; we spent three consecutive years together.
In Country Day’s lower school setting, students are with the same teachers for Kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grades (K/1/2). This three-year span means that our relationships are allowed to grow deeper, our attachments tend to become greater, and our knowledge of our students accumulates over time, involving their academic life as well as their social-emotional development. So many of our community ties are built during these early years. Not only do we spend several formative years with our young students and their parents, but we also get to know their extended family members. Over this lengthy period, we might meet grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other important members in our young students’ lives.
A favorite tradition in K/1/2 is what we call VIP week. Each student has a turn being in the spotlight, and students look forward to their week. Many schools have something similar, but what makes it unique in our setting is that families often plan for this over three years: Aunt Sally might come in dressed as a witch to tell Halloween stories one year, Grandpa might come in to talk about his time in the Army the following year, and Grandma might come in to complete a piece of art with the class, each child painting one square that will fit together like a beautiful quilt and hang in the classroom for years to come. Parents often come in as well to read or share professions or hobbies but meeting the extended families of our students means connecting with their personal lives in a way that is genuine and makes a lasting impression.
These connections are deep and last as long as we nurture them. Associations like these are beneficial to our students. Research clearly demonstrates that building trusting relationships in the classroom can have long-lasting effects on a student’s life. This has been proven to impact both student academics and general well-being. A classroom environment where students feel known and validated puts them on a path toward becoming more accepting of others and more apt to build stronger relationships in their future. They are also a gift to the adults. We all benefit from creating meaningful relationships with other humans. Building communities that are this strong has positive ramifications for everyone, and few other professions have the distinction of being able to do so as richly and deeply as those of us in schools. That is priceless.
Originally published in the CSEE Connections Quarterly, Spring 2019 Issue.
Ninnette is a 3rd/4th-grade teacher (formerly a K/1st/2nd-grade teacher) and leads Country Day's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts as DEI Coordinator.
Established in 1929, Metairie Park Country Day School is a coed private school for New Orleans area students in early childhood through Grade 12. From the elementary grades through upper school, the care and cultivation of each child comes to life in our exciting academic program, creative arts, and competitive athletic offerings.
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