I believe that belief in a child changes everything even when that child is a 14 year- old jaded eighth grader. I am a teacher. I am suppose to believe in children’s possibilities and capabilities and for the most part in my 29 years of teaching I have. But this year was different, this year I decided to truly “leave no child behind” and not allow students the option of getting a D or F in my English class. What this meant was I accepted late work with no penalty and I worked with students before and after school. I called them on their cells and land lines and emailed them to remind them about homework. I picked them up in the morning and drove them home after school. And there was that day during December vacation that I held school. I involved their parents as a last resort preferring instead that my students deal directly with me. Oh and I offered soup and crackers during our meeting times.
At first my students were angry. They begged for Fs. They didn’t want to work. They argued their right of refusal. They put their heads on their desks and languished. They created inventive excuses for why they should be excused, for why my homework policy didn’t apply to them. They threatened me and a few even cursed (many more than a few behind my back). They whined. They tried ignoring me. They got caller ID on their phones. They whined.
During the year I consistently pursued every assignment. And they wrote. They wrote” basketball and I hate school blues” for our unit on the Harlem Renaissance. They wrote tales of overcoming adversity for our unit on The Dust Bowl. They created portfolios for Immigration Open House. They wrote and they began to see themselves as writers. They began to see themselves as capable. In answering some questions about Countee Cullen’s life and students’ connection to poetry, one student, Jamar Dillard wrote,” This year is the only time I can remember writing a poem that I felt good enough about to read to others. I wrote a poem about basketball. I had started off writing about how young I was when I first touched a basketball and where I first played at. I wasn’t into writing it but when I got half way done I really started thinking and tried to make it top notch.”
In order to demonstrate belief I have had to stop multitasking when students ask questions, complain about life’s unfairness, or walk into the classroom and greet me. They want my undivided attention, the kind my grandfather gave me when I walked into his trailer after school. The soda, the sympathy, and the strong eye contact said that he was listening to me. There is no substitute for attention.
And so I believe that belief in students changes the way they see themselves. Belief recommits them to learning, to working, and to taking risks. It gives them a new pair of glasses, through which they see themselves as I want them to see themselves, people with knowledge, people with pride, and people who are willing to get a job done.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.