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Forging Bonds and Building Culture Outside of the Classroom

Leading a classroom is only the start of a corps member’s work. What goes on beyond class time can prove equally impactful to the lives of students and teachers alike.

TFA alumni with student.

By The TFA Editorial Team

December 19, 2018

For Cynthia Barajas (Dallas-Fort Worth ’14), it was the small act of eating lunch with her kids that allowed her to build deeper connections. “You get to see their personalities a little bit more at lunchtime. They're able to talk and aren’t unnecessarily constrained with classroom rules or things like that,” Cynthia says.

In sharing a bite with the kids, Cynthia came to better know the inner-workers of the school and community she was a part of and grew up in herself—who were best buds, and what students did outside of the classroom. She was able to learn about siblings, cousins who were in different grades, and entire families. She also had the opportunity to uncover passions and talents, enough so that she was even able to help a budding artist get into a special arts magnet middle school.

“At that time, I had already had my child, so I gave her [the budding artist] a picture of my daughter,” says Cynthia. “I was like, ‘Draw her, this is going to be your lucky charm for school.’ She ended up doing a portrait of my daughter and included it in her portfolio. She was like, ‘Ms. Barajas, I think Leah was actually my lucky charm.’”

Today, the student is in the seventh grade, and Cynthia still receives invites to her art shows. Thinking back to her time in the classroom, Cynthia feels that seemingly fleeting moments are when educators have an opportunity to build something truly special with their students. “Something as simple as eating lunch let me build back classroom culture. I feel like that set me up for success in other areas, like their actual learning objectives. When you connect with a student, they know that you care, so they try a lot harder for you.”

As just about any corps member, or former corps member, can attest, a teacher’s work hardly ends when the bell rings and the classroom empties. Corps members are committed to their students’ personal growth as much as their academic achievement—and know the two are intertwined. Being a teacher means after-school hours, early mornings, and often weekends filled with gestures large and small, formal and informal, supporting their students in any way possible. It means creating after-school robotics classes, coaching sports teams, setting up library study groups, and taking students on college tours. It can also mean wake-up calls to those who need it, home visits and family conferences. It means attending celebrations like quinceaneras, birthday parties, and graduations, and being there for funerals and the emotional aftermath. It can be as simple as lending an ear when a child needs to talk, or, like Cynthia, making time for lunch together. These relationships often blossom into life-long mentorships and even friendships.

For students, time connecting with teachers and peers outside of class matters. These moments create real-world learning experiences students carry with them. The relationships, as corps members go above and beyond their job descriptions, can help forge bonds and empower students and families by letting them know someone has their back. Stepping outside the classroom also gives teachers the chance to see their students in greater depth and understand more fully the circumstances in which they live and the challenges and opportunities they bring with them to the classroom.

After all, sometimes teachable moments don’t often fit so neatly into a box.

“When you connect with a student, they know that you care, so they try a lot harder for you.”

Cynthia Barajas

Dallas-Fort Worth Corps Member 2014

In Syedah Asghar’s (San Antonio ’14) first year teaching in San Antonio, she saw the need for a place on campus where young women could go for support. She created the Empowered Young Womxn club, an afterschool club where middle-school-aged girls could meet. They met as often as twice a week. They went to movies and visited colleges, but mostly they talked.

During what can be a tumultuous time in young women’s lives, the group provided a safe space where students could discuss issues that deeply mattered to them, issues that often aren’t so easy to air. “We talked a lot about safe relationships and what those look like. We talked a lot about pregnancy, we talked about body image, and we talked about racism that they experience. We talked about a lot of those -isms’ in the different ways that they can manifest. We talked a lot about insecurities as women and the challenges. I also shared a lot with them and brought in other women who shared their stories,” Syedah recalls.

The group was close. And then, in February of its third year, a member of the group took her own life. What started out as a place outside of class for women to bond became a place to grieve.

“This was someone they all really knew and loved, and they were very upset,” Syedah says. “Students, her friends who were very close to her and took her death personally, felt some responsibility and guilt. I just wanted to make sure that everyone was okay, but especially those particular students. So I and another teacher chose to make it a space of healing where we let students just have that outlet they needed, whether it was talking about it, whether it was coloring, whether it was watching a movie and just shutting your brain off.”

For the next two months after the student’s passing, Syedah arranged meetings and school outings. “To me, it was important [for them] to have different experiences during their eighth-grade year besides just a memory of that one moment,” she says.

Today, Syedah is a manager of teacher leadership development at Teach For America, and she still meets up for lunch with students from that tough time. "I have seen a lot of them in classrooms where corps members are teaching,” she says. “It's just been a full circle, but also a healing circle and space to breathe.

To Syedah, that’s what makes the moments outside the classroom so meaningful and special. “You just meet in a different light, talk about things that are important to them, but still continue that relationship in a different way."