I recall clearly an experience I had early in my career that changed my perspective on teaching forever and made me an immeasurably better teacher. On the day before school started we received our class rosters in our mailboxes. I was teaching three hours of ninth grade Physical Science and three hours of Pre-Algebra. As I looked over the roster I quickly noticed that every student in my Physical Science classes were tenth graders or above. That meant one thing: they had all failed the class before. Oh no, all these kids were failures! The last thing they wanted was to be in my class and the last thing I wanted was to have them there. I wanted the good kids, not these rejects.
I ran to an assistant principal, who had nothing to do with the schedule, and moaned my woes to him. He looked me in the eye and said, “Mike, what are you going to do about it? Are you going to complain all year about what somebody has done to you or are you going to set the tone in your classroom tomorrow that will give those kids a chance?”
It was the best thing anyone could say to me. I went home and reflected. I chose to not complain about how these kids could never learn. I chose instead to stand at the door every hour and look every student in the eye and welcome them to my class. Many of them didn’t look back at me. Most didn’t appear to be very lovable. Remember you don’t have to like every student… just act like you do! But something happened. In just a few days they began to respond to me. And I responded to them. I actually began to like them. Well, most of them, anyway.
The first thing I said to each class was, “Look around you, go ahead, look around. You will notice that every one of you are in the tenth grade or above. That tells me one thing: all of you have failed this class before. But one nice thing about school is that you can start all over each August. The slate is wiped clean. This is a new year, with a new teacher. I don’t care what you did last year, and neither should you. I’m going to give you a chance to succeed that you never had before and I expect every one of you to do just that.”
Oh, those classes were hard work. There were few discipline problems, but it was hard work to prepare lessons that were relevant to them without losing the rigor of the course. It was hard to establish relationships with them. I found it difficult to involve parents until I began making personal phone calls. I searched for reasons to call home. When a student made his first C on a test, I called home. You can imagine the conversation.
“Hello, Mrs. Smith? This is Mr. Prater, Johnny’s science teacher.”
Long pause. “What’s he done now?”
“Nothing bad, I just wanted to let you know that he is working hard for me in science and he just made a C on a really difficult test. I’m proud of him, and you should be, too.”
One young man came in the next day after a phone call and he actually had tears in his eyes. “Mr. Prater, my dad took me out for pizza last night after you called. He’s never done anything like that for me.” You know, I never had to cajole him again that year to turn in his work or study for a test.
I’ve had National Merit Scholars who attended West Point or Harvard. I can count as my former students judges, doctors, research scientists, and military generals. But by far my most rewarding teaching experience was that group of kids and others like them. I really had little impact on the judges, doctors, and all the rest. They would have made it without me. Maybe they made it in spite of me.
Did I reach every child? No. Some are in the prison system today, some are hooked on all sorts of things, and some are no longer with us. But I know that I made a difference in lives. The phrase “make a difference” is practically a cliche now, but nevertheless it is still true. YOU teachers touch lives every day. Never lose the passion for loving children.