I spent a good chunk of time this week training for my new job as an education specialist. I’m really excited to get back into the classroom, but it’s bringing back memories of the kids I taught when I was in Teach for America.
While they all have their stories, one kid will always stick out the most for me: J, a student in my sophomore world lit class.
J was a typical student. Smart enough to get good grades, but with an attitude that kept him from succeeding. He lived with his grandmother, and a month or two into the semester, she scheduled a conference with all his teachers to discuss his failing grades.
His history teacher went first. “J is a smart kid, but he doesn’t do the work and he acts up in class. At this point, he’s failed the first grading period [there were 3 gradings periods and then the final exam, averaged together for the class grade] and there’s no way he can pass the class.”
His math teacher was next. “J has an attitude problem that gets him sent out of class. He isn’t doing the work or learning the material. At this point, he’s too far behind to catch up. He isn’t going to pass.”
Then it was his PE teacher’s turn. “J won’t dress out for class, so he’s failing. I don’t know why he won’t do it. If he’d just get changed he might be able to pass, but it’s probably too late for him.”
To me, this is the worst thing you can tell a student. He’ll be in your class for another 2-3 months, and there’s no way he can pass? What incentive does he have to behave or do the work, especially for a kid like J who already has behavior and motivation issues?
After each teacher spoke, J’s grandmother turned to him and scolded him. “What’s wrong with you? This isn’t how I raised you. Why aren’t you trying?”
J just shrugged, his scowl deepening.
And then it was my turn. “J’s a smart kid, but he has an attitude problem. He mouths off and then gets sent out of class, or suspended due to behavior, which means he misses a lot of assignments and quizzes. I give half credit for late work, so if he turns in his missing assignments he can pull his grade up. And he can retake quizzes after class, if he just shows up in the afternoon. Also, I do my grades a bit differently. The lowest I give each grading period is a 60%. That’s still failing, but it means that at any time, the student can change his mind and decide to do the work needed to pass the class. J could probably at this point still pull out a B or a C, if he decided that he wanted to make the effort.”
J didn’t say anything that day, but a couple days later he was in my classroom asking for make-up assignments. And more remarkably, his attitude changed immensely. Sure, he still had issues with shooting his mouth off to his classmates, and talking in class in general, but he was no longer rude and disrespectful to me. He did his work (well, most of it). He came by my classroom on his way to in-school suspension, not only to get assignments to work on but to tell me his side of why he’d been kicked out of his other classes – and usually he defended himself by saying the teacher had been disrespectful to him, so he was disrespectful (usually involving swearing) back.
Despite his ingoing problems in his other classes, I felt like I’d really gotten through to J. He had a teacher who cared about him, who believed in him, and he made an effort to live up to my expectations.
Going into the final that spring, if he did well on the exam he’d pass the class – possibly with even a C. He was absent the day of the test (suspended, I think), so he came by the next day, a teacher workday, to make it up. He asked for a break before he started answering questions.
I want to write that he came back, aced the exam, and passed my class. Hollywood education story ending. But that’s not what happened. I let him out, and he never came back; he was caught smoking pot in another classroom. It being the end of the school year, they sent him home and he didn’t come back the next day either to take the exam.
After all that effort, after the huge attitude adjustment, after all my faith in him, he failed my class. I wanted to pass him, but he made his choice and he needed to be held responsible for it. It was a huge disappointment for me, especially as I wasn’t returning to teaching that fall and I’d probably never see him again.
So as I prepare to enter the classroom again, teaching kids with the same barriers as J – social, economic, academic; even as simple as an attitude problem – I think about him, about what could’ve happened. About what should’ve happened. And I wonder, this time around, will I be able to influence them enough that they make the right choice?
I wouldn’t underestimate the effect you had on J. He might not have been able to pull it together fully at that point in his life, but you made an impact and changed something in him, and that counts for something.
Best of luck in your new efforts to wrangle with the youth of the nation. I’m finishing teaching in a couple of weeks and taking a break to be with my own children (and write!)
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