Fifteen years into my life as a teacher, after participating in countless professional development sessions in which I learned techniques for building classroom environment and the importance of doing so, it was a student who taught me one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned in this area.
That spring, I asked students to write a letter explaining what had worked best for them during our time together, what they still felt we needed to do as we closed out our year, and what I could do differently to make the class a better place for people to grow as readers. That is a pretty introspective demand to place on a group of 14-year-old, mostly male reluctant readers, but it was my first year attempting to teach in a workshop-style environment, and I really did want their feedback. I was willing to take whatever they could give but was astounded when I saw how open, honest, and vulnerable they were in their responses.
In his letter, one student wrote there was nothing about the class to improve, but instead there were changes he needed to make in the way he approached life. He explained he had started the year with the same mindset that had been in place since mid-elementary– doubting he could ever meet expectations and reluctant to hope for even the smallest success. I had shown him that he could succeed, forcing him into it through sheer persistence and a steady diet of positive reinforcement, and he realized he WAS a reader and he COULD be a leader. He needed to stop doubting and start doing.
The words in his letter moved me to tears and taught me that sometimes poor quality work or an attitude that comes across as apathy is not that at all but is instead paralyzing self-doubt rooted in insecurity. The looming fear of failure easily leads to failure — or close to it anyway. He taught me that one of the most helpful things I could do for my students was to continue to believe in them, and alongside lessons that covered curriculum, teach them to believe in themselves.
That year, with the principal’s support, I followed the children where their needs led. We did a lot of independent reading and conferring, interspersed with high-interest YA titles as the focus for many different literature circles. We read; we talked; we wrote. Then we did it again and again and again. Interestingly enough, I recorded very few grades. I now look back and wonder whether that contributed to the growing sense of confidence that was so evident in this group of young men.
This amazing young man went on to high school and had a notably successful four years there, both as an athlete and a scholar. I had no doubt he could. I am thankful I had a small role in making sure he didn’t have doubts about it either. He will change the world someday.
I occasionally pat myself on the back and assume his experience that year had a role in shaping who he has become. At the same time, I also nod in acknowledgement that it definitely did so for me! I thank him for that– for entertaining thoughts that were wise beyond his years and for his gift of sharing them with me.