Several years ago, a frustrated student of mine came to see me after I returned a unit test to the class. He was frustrated because he did not do as well as he should/could have. Whenever a student has this type of reaction, I always start by asking them if they did everything they could to do well. Did they spend enough time studying? Did they take good notes during class? Did they ask for help when needed? This particular student was honest, and answered “no” to these questions. So, we sat down together to try and create a plan so that the student would do better next time. I was proud of the student for taking some ownership of the situation. While most of my conversations of these nature would have ended there, I could tell that this student wanted to speak further. I asked him what was on his mind. It was this conversation that made me pause to reflect on the difference that a teacher could make.
The student told me that I was the first teacher to make him do any work. This statement surprised me a bit because as a 10th grader, I knew that the student has had more tests and projects in other subjects, than I could count. I asked the student what he meant, and he asked me if I remembered what it was like to sit in a classroom, bored out of my mind, trying to make it through the day. The truth is, as anyone who knows me well can tell you, I was a terrible student in school. I barely made it through 4 years, and if it were not for some caring teachers and administrators, who knows where I would be right now. So, I knew exactly what the student was experiencing. I actually felt kind of badly for him, because as a teacher, I knew that it didn’t have to be this way.
First, I asked the student if this was true of ALL of his classes, and he admitted that there were a few subjects he actually enjoyed. He said though that I was the first teacher to actually talk to him about a bad grade and the first person who offered to work with him towards a solution. Part of me was surprised, because I knew that many of my colleagues were excellent educators who cared about their students. I also knew though, that sometimes it is that one teacher who is able to connect with the student to make the difference. I assured the student that we all cared about him and that we all wanted him to do well, but I knew that he was not convinced. He then told me that he was thinking about dropping out of school, as he was not a good student. I don’t know if he was really serious, but I was troubled to hear this talented young man even thinking about this step. It was painfully clear, that this student had lost faith in the system. Whether it was rightfully so was irrelevant, because, if this was the way the student felt, then encouraging him to put in more effort and to care about his studies, was going to be an uphill battle. I decided right then and there, that as his teacher, I needed to help this student any way I could. He was a talented young man with great potential, but he was on the verge of throwing it all away purely out of frustration and indifference.
When I was his age, I had one teacher in particular that sat me down one day and told me in no uncertain terms to wake up. She told me that the future was in my hands and she told me in the clearest way possible not to muck up my life because I was lazy and disinterested. While no teacher had ever put it in those terms before, in many ways it was exactly what I needed to hear. Over the next year, I finally started to realize that maybe this teacher knew what she was talking about. While I was definitely not an “A” student, I got through high school and went on to become a successful student in college, at least partially thanks to this caring teacher’s direct approach.
I decided that I would use the same basic approach with my student, as I knew he was capable. He just needed a “kick” to get him going. I continued to speak with the student regularly throughout the year. He saw for himself anyway, that dropping out of school to work at the Mall was probobly not the best idea. We became close, as often, he brought me work from other classes to review and to discuss. I was not tutoring, but I was just there to be a listener and to offer occasional advice. I knew that the 5-10 minutes that I gave to this student could be the “make or break” that the student needed. As his academic career continued, and I moved on to other professional opportunities, we continued to email and occasionally Skype. When the student graduated from high school, he was not at the top of his class, but for a student who was on the verge of throwing away his future, I was extremely proud of him for turning it all around.
Today, after completing 2 years in Yeshiva and going on to earn a Bachelor’s degree, the student now has a good job and a bright future ahead. I received a Linked In message from this student asking me how I was doing, as it had been a long time since we last spoke. Hearing from this student, made me think about both of our journeys to success.
I certainly do not take most of the credit for this student’s success. He was able to succeed mostly, because of his determination and hard work. This story though, can serve as a reminder to both students and teachers, that sometimes the personal approach can really make the difference. It is not so easy for teachers, as most of us have a lot of students and very limited time. If we can however, find a way to be there for our students whenever we can, it can make a huge difference.
I can only imagine where I would be right now, if that teacher back in high school had not gone out of her way to speak to me. At the end, I did the work, and something finally “clicked” that made me think about the future possibilities. That teacher got the process started. Today, us educators, can do the same for our students.