Several years back my school got a family from Egypt. There were twin first grade girls, and a brother who was entering sixth grade. Neither the parents nor the little girls spoke any English. The 6th grade brother spoke some English and was responsible for registering all three students, as well all future communication with the school (he translated at all three parent-teacher conferences later that year). Traditional homework advocates would no doubt suggest that these children be held to same standard of work after hours as their peers despite gaping circumstantial differences, but I won't get on that soap box today...
The brother moved on to junior high after completing that year, but the twins stayed with us. The girls were identical twins and the parents made it further challenging on the world by naming them Marla and Marva respectively. I'll admit I had no idea which girl was which. When I'd see one of them, I'd use 'sweetie' or 'honey' or 'Ms. lastname' (as they got older) to address them when we passed in the halls to mask the fact that even after several years of attendance in my relatively small school I still didn't know which one was which.
Further, I knew nothing about these girls beyond that they were both a disaster on the standardized tests all educators seemingly get judged by (certainly not their fault, I'd fair no better on Egyptian standardized tests). The girls acquired English speaking skills impressively fast but were quiet (never in trouble). The parents never learned to speak English. Unlike our Spanish speaking families where we offer everything translated and translation services for all school events, nothing of the sort was ever offered for this family (the older brother continued to return for conferences which was usually the only time we saw them). I can't say the girls 'slipped through the cracks' because we did support them through RtI and bilingual services, yet in some other undefinable way, they probably did.
The girls are now in 6th grade. Their teacher recently gave them the writing prompt, "My school is great because _________ (I know, really hard hitting stuff here.. ugh)." One of the girls (again, I don't even know which one) wrote, "My school is great because the principal always says hello to me." and went on to craft a paper around it.
Wow. My initial reaction was relief with a touch of pride that I'd done this (I work pretty hard to greet all students regularly). But as I further reflected, this was another reminder that as an adult (particularly as a principal) I am totally clueless about the influence I have. Any pride I had shifted to feelings of guilt and shame. I'd never chatted with these girls, I knew nothing about them personally... shit, I didn't even know their damn names! All I knew about them was that they didn't pass standardized tests and came they came from another country. Shame on me.
Luckily for me, this time at least, time hadn't run out. I make a major effort these days to talk up the twins when I see them. They light up like a damn Christmas tree if I spend fifteen seconds BSing with them.
There's a reality here. It's awfully tough (particularly for administration and middle/high school teachers with 5 or 6 classes) to get to know every single kid in the school personally (especially when they don't reach out to you). But this tale should serve as a reminder that even minor adult-student interactions can have major impact. It's a reminder that human relationships are a better means to improving learning than computers and textbooks. It's a reminder that kids are more than their often meaningless test scores. It's a reminder we all matter.