WHY I TEACH

Believing Change Is Possible

Before Ayesha al-Shabazz could become a 7-year-old's superhero, she had to make a very human connection.

Educator Ayesha al-Shabazz surrounded by books.
Photography by Kristie Eiland

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Elementary school teachers get tons of them from students. But let’s face it: Most of them end up getting chucked into “file 13”—the final resting place for students’ notes and drawings. But a few years ago, a student gave me a picture that hangs above my desk to this day. It is the cutest picture of me drawn as a “Super Teacher.” Underneath, she wrote the words “I love you. Your a hero.” But the spelling doesn’t bother me. I kept this particular picture because it’s a reminder that this job isn’t about me. It’s about these children. It symbolizes overcoming obstacles, finding hidden strength and assisting in the evolution of some of my more challenging students, like the one who drew me as a superhero.

Imagine being told to “shut the f--- up” by a 7-year-old. Imagine having to empty your entire classroom because one student won’t stop throwing linking cubes, pencils and chairs—tearing up in minutes what took you days to organize and decorate. Needless to say, I spent more than a few nights stressed, and to be honest, I even questioned my future in education more than once. But this wasn’t my first rodeo, I reminded myself. God placed me in this profession to not only educate minds but also to heal broken spirits, so I pushed on.

Fourteen years of experience told me that this child was suffering. I had to find the root of her behavior. So, I met with her mom and voiced my concerns. She didn’t seem surprised but said she’d talk to her daughter. Then I asked about the child’s father. With a slow, deep breath and downcast eyes, she told the heartbreaking story of her domestic abuse. My student’s father was now in jail, and my student had witnessed everything. It all made sense now. This baby had seen and heard way too much. It became my mission to help her heal.

So I worked on building a better relationship with her and equipping her with tools she needed. Every day I pulled her aside and told her how much I loved and cared about her, that I’d never give up on her. I asked about her likes, dislikes and interests and worked those into lessons when I could. She loved frogs, so I had a friend bring some in as we learned about life cycles. She was often my special helper, and I showered her with praise at the slightest signs of cooperation or changed behavior. I used lots of visual and verbal cues to help prepare her for transitions. For example, she had a visual schedule and sticker chart to help her own her behaviors. We used emojis and drawings when she shut down verbally. That evolved into using guided breathing techniques and meditation to calm down. I reassured her that “it’s OK to feel angry,” and whenever she felt she was getting upset, she could sit in the “chill zone.” Journaling and frequent visits to the school’s counselor helped her communicate and get along with others, too.

It took time and it wasn’t easy, but she soon began to transform into someone who used her words instead of throwing chairs. She took self-regulated timeouts instead of screaming and fighting, and she drew pictures of me as a superhero instead of cursing at me. Students like this have taught me that change is possible, even in the most difficult cases. I persevere in hopes of changing the world, one child at a time. It’s this belief and these success stories that continue to drive me and give my life meaning.

Ayesha al-Shabazz teaches second grade at Southview Elementary School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

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