On the first day of every school year the bell rings and students, in my case seniors, walk in, shake my hand, sit where they will, and wait to see what kind of teacher I will be. I go through the same process with them. Each student requires something different from me, so I need to understand students individually if I am going to help them grow into critical readers, writers, and thinkers. I refuse to listen to past teachers’ reports on my new students’ personalities or proclivities. I refuse to prejudge my students. To be effective, I must know my students and I must know them well based on my experiences.
I will meet my new students shortly, but as I plan for their arrival, I can’t help but reflect on last year’s students and the road we traveled together and the special relationships we developed. I am focusing on three specific students, but I could easily write a short commentary on each of my kids.
Colby walked into my AP English Literature class with all the confidence of a last-place finisher in a crowded field of slow pokes. How could this be? I had heard about this young lady’s exploits on the track since she was in middle school. Colby had earned a spot in the Texas State track finals every year since she was a 9th grader. But when she entered my class, every word out of her mouth confirmed her resignation to failing the AP exam.
My approach with Colby was to help her see how her competitive drive in track could translate into academic success. She failed to see the connections. Colby struggled. “It’s not the same thing Mr. Smith!”
She often grew frustrated with her stagnant scores, and with me, as I continued to push her like a coach instead of an English teacher. I wasn’t going to let up on Colby because I know that athletes respond to practice, feedback, and more practice. They also understand tough love from a coach.
Colby’s breakthrough came about one month before the AP exam. Her scores improved and I could see a glimmer of hope in her eyes. On the day of the exam, she still seemed hesitant, but she had an air of confidence that was missing earlier in the year. She still talked down her chances of passing the exam, but we both knew she had a shot.
Colby passed the exam with a 3. She broke the tape with a major win and she was as proud of her 3 as winning any race. I let her know her score, and she responded “NO WAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” I was so proud of Colby’s effort.
Students like Colby must be pushed differently than other students. I approach my athletes differently than I do my non-athletes. I try to understand what drives their competitive spirits, and I help them see how their drive to excel in sports is the same trigger that will drive their success in the classroom.
Allie walked into my AP English Literature class as an accomplished and competitive academic. She was one of the highest performing students in the entire school. She was an active member in many clubs and organizations. She volunteered outside of school and she worked a part-time job. I assume she slept from time to time. Allie stepped into my room ready to score 5 on the exam with or without me. She was confident except when she wasn’t. She shared and participated except when she didn’t. She was emotionally strong except when she wasn’t. Allie’s road to a 5 was curvy at times, but a 5 was never in question.
Allie didn’t need a coach and she didn’t need support in the same sense as James needed support. Allie needed intellectually challenging discourse. She needed me to push her thinking. Allie also needed me to listen to her ideas and respond more as an intellectual partner than as a teacher. Truthfully, Allie was much smarter than me in most subject areas, but not in English. I needed to treat her as an intellectual partner if I was going to move her to new levels of literary analysis.
Because Allie was still a teenager there were times her frustrations with peers, classes, clubs, and work led her to emotional challenges, I had to move out of the intellectual partner role, into a counselor role. I needed to listen and help her see the bigger picture. There were times I just needed to listen without comment.
Of course, Allie scored a 5 on the AP Literature exam. Her score was never in question and quite frankly, a minor point of my time with Allie. Spending time with Allie in rich literary conversation was the reward.
My approach with Allie was to help her deepen her academic voice and maintain a sense of balance in her final year of high school. Students like Allie are on the cusp of major academic success on the collegiate level and beyond. I want to help them begin the transition to college-level academic discourse.
The Boy in the Back
James walked into my AP English Literature class and made his way quickly to the back of the room. His goal was not simply to secure his position in the back of the room, but he wanted to claim the back, far-right corner. James was quiet. James didn’t want be noticed or contribute. James was not a problem for any of his teachers. James failed the AP Language class exam, but he was content to pass with a 70 and play the game he had perfected over the years.
James needed me to see him. Sitting in the back of the room allowed him to hide and staying quiet and behaving himself, allowed him to blend into the fabric of the class unseen. Like a plane flying under the radar, James was stealthy.
My approach with James was to reel him in slowly. I didn’t want to scare him into deeper silence, so I started my relationship with him one on one in the back of the room. During small group activities, I worked my way to his group. I sat with him and asked him questions about his classes and his life beyond my class.
I provided academic feedback, but I wanted him to know that I saw him as a unique student. Over the course of a few months, James came to understand that I was truly interested in him and his success. He started to share with me and share more openly with his peers.
Once James trusted my intentions his performance in class started to improve. I commented on his improvements and provided methods for his continuing success. James grew in confidence and passed the AP exam with a 3. James’s 3 helped make my year a success.
James needed to be supported and respected for who he was, but he also needed a bit more nudging and encouraging. His ways may have been quirky, but they were his ways.
All students must be challenged, coached, mentored, and seen by their teachers. All students deserve a teacher who takes the time to evaluate and consider the best possible approaches for their success both inside and outside the classroom. I truly enjoy getting to know my kids. I want the very best for each student under my supervision. I am ready to help the athletes, band kids, theater kids, science and math kids, and well, all kids reach their full potential.
At the start of each year I learn who my students are by
- surveying each student so I know what activities, sports, clubs, or after-school work they are engaged in.
- making sure students knows that I have read their survey asking follow-up questions.
- continuing to ask questions about students as the year progresses so students understand that I am interested with their well-being beyond academics.
Relationships are what make teaching so rewarding and so challenging. My greatest joy in teaching is helping my students be the best they can in all areas of their lives, and this goal is only attainable if I know each of my students as whole, unique, wonderful human beings.
Roy F. Smith is an instructional coach and AP English and Dual-Credit teacher in Round Rock, Texas. Follow English Roy on Twitter for his latest thoughts and musings.