Langston Hughes Academy sits just a short distance north of the horse race tracks in the Fairgrounds neighborhood of New Orleans. While it looks different now than it did when Unique Snyder was a child – it was completely renovated after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 – it has the same distinct smell that she vividly remembers. “When I used to go here when I was small, I used to smell the horses and the hay – and it still smells like that,” she shares, nostalgically. Now 25 years old, she fondly remembers her time as a first and second grade student at the school and, despite her students not being all that interested in hearing her reminisce, she still likes to share her memories. She says, “as soon as I got placed at this school, I was like, ‘This is my old stomping grounds – I can’t believe it!’ ”
At the start of the 2015-2016 school year, Unique was placed as a physical education assistant at the school for a year of service through Up2Us Sports’ Coach Across America (CAA) program. The New Orleans native graduated from the University of New Orleans in June 2015 with a degree in child and family development, with the intent of teaching secondary education. When she found out about CAA, she put her plans of being a traditional classroom teacher aside and was thrilled to spend a year teaching and coaching kids in a gymnasium instead. After already having spent a few years student-teaching, Unique had no problem adjusting to the P.E. class setting. The life-long athlete was thrilled to have found a job where she could both teach and move: “It wasn’t that hard to transition into it because, I love movement!”
Despite the ease of transition for Unique, it wasn’t as easy for her students. “When I first came here, everyone was skeptical because most of these kids have been here since Kindergarten, and the older kids already knew the [other] coach because [he’d] been here for six years,” shares Unique. The students were also expecting the assistant coach from the previous year to return. After a few weeks of withdrawn behavior, Unique noticed a sudden change in the kids’ behavior towards her. “As soon as they saw me for more than two weeks, they were like, okay, she’s here and not going anywhere, she knows what’s happening,” she says.
As the weeks went on, Unique was able to start building relationships with her students. In addition to seeing her as an authoritative figure in their lives, they began to realize that she was a lot like them and this made trusting her easier. She grew up in their neighborhood. She attended this same school. She hangs out in the same places and shops at the same stores and goes to the same events as their parents or older siblings do. “We have things in common so it makes it easier for us to build a relationship. Whenever it’s time for us to get down to hard work, they’re not questioning me and they know I’m not going to let them down,” says Unique. “You only have to warm up to kids and they have to see how you are and then you are that person in their mind forever.”
Just prior to starting the year off at Langston Hughes Academy, Unique attended one of Up2Us Sports’ Coach Training Institutes, held locally in New Orleans. She was one of 45 CAA coaches and 20 host site supervisors from the local area, gathered for the four-day training in sports-based youth development (SBYD). Upon graduating from one of these four-day events, participants are Level 3 certified coaches; they have completed sessions on building positive program culture, trauma-sensitive coaching, and creative ways to manage challenging behavior. From Unique’s perspective, the most influential portion for her was the trauma-sensitive component: “I feel like that was so good, it was the best thing for y’all to introduce to coaches or just teachers in general. I think every teacher should be trauma-sensitive trained.”
This particular component teaches coaches to separate the child from the behavior and gives them more insight into what the child is going through – outside of the classroom and school environment – and how you can manage it without bringing attention to it or interrupting class. Unique shared one instance where she implemented a strategy she learned at Institute: “Two boys were about to have a fight and I said, ‘hey, what’d you have for dinner? Because I had chicken,’ and they looked at me like, ‘what did she just say?’ But they had forgotten that they were about to have that fuss!” Unique feels that the experience gave her more patience and made her more compassionate, and in general, she learned to read the kids better and manage their behavior.
Overall, Unique sees herself as a better teacher because of CAA. It has transformed her perspective on teaching and has broadened her scope of what “teaching” can be. Coaching is teaching and both are a vital component for kids living in difficult circumstances across the country, particularly in New Orleans. When asked of her future plans, Unique only knows one thing for sure: “I want to work with the kids. That is not not happening! I want to help. There aren’t a lot of teachers I can look back on from when I was growing up and think, ‘oh, I can’t wait to see that teacher,’ or ‘that teacher taught me so much.’ Hopefully I can be that teacher for somebody.”
The day of this interview she shared that a girl came up to her and told her, “I’m so happy you’re here because I need someone to talk to.” Her response? “Okay, girl, let’s talk.”
It sounds like she’s already become that teacher for at least one girl.