My childhood memories of beginning a new school year are full of new clothes, new binders and pencils, and, best of all, a new class and teacher. Each year held the promise of a fresh beginning. Gone were the failures of the previous year.
How well I remember the resolutions I made each summer, those private oaths to do better than I had in the past. “This year,” I would tell myself, “I will keep up with my work, watch less TV, start my homework earlier, and try to focus better during class.”
The year I entered grade 11 was a year of promises made like every other. I knew that unless I made some significant changes in my work habits and my attitude, my chances of passing my math class were slim. I passed, barely, but I know that those beginning of the year resolutions and my ability to act on them were what got me through math that year. I might have had only a 65 at the end of the course, but my ability to change my work habits and attitudes taught me an unforgettable lesson: I possessed the power within myself to make necessary changes in my life.
A new day
This week, I’ve been thinking about all those students who will be returning to school this fall. Just like I used to do, many are thinking about what went wrong in their past school experiences. Some are even contemplating academic and behavioral changes they might make. More sobering, some are wondering if change is even possible, especially if the teachers they will have this year have been given a “heads up” about their past follies.
Do teachers give each student a chance to begin fresh each year? I’m not so sure. After sitting through my share of report-outs about incoming students, I wonder why teachers are so determined to share the negative information they know about their students. While it is helpful for me to know about my students’ academic and health challenges, I would prefer to have the freedom to begin my year with little knowledge about their past mistakes. Some might think this lack of information could put me at a disadvantage, but I would like to look at my students with fresh eyes. I hope to give every one of them the opportunity to make a fresh start.
The power of fresh starts
Thirty years ago this month, I began my first year of teaching. One of the most memorable aspects of that first year was a little boy in my grade 2 classroom who exhibited severe ADHD characteristics. I had no training in dealing with special needs cases like Stephen, and I spent the year learning by trial and error how to help this eight year old become a successful learner. There were many frustrating moments, but there was something very endearing about that little boy who buzzed haphazardly around my classroom.
As the end of the school year approached, I heard the talk. The grade 3 teachers were shuddering at the thought of having Stephen next year. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I would be the best person to loop with Stephen into grade 3. My principal looked at me with disbelief when I made my request to follow Stephen into the next grade, but he agreed to my plan.
I will never forget that day in September when Stephen came to ask why he was in my class again. I looked him square in the eye and I said, “Well Stephen, you’re in my class because I asked for you.” The little guy peeking out from under a pile of tousled black hair looked stunned. “You did? Why?” he asked. “Because I like you and want to keep working with you,” I responded.
Stephen just stared at me. After a few moments, he smiled and wandered back to his seat. We never spoke of it again, but the two of us had many incredible learning breakthroughs that year. I believe those successes were more a result of Stephen knowing that I had put his previous year’s mistakes behind him than in any special teaching technique I used.
Or maybe it had more to do with what poet, Langston Hughes so astutely observed: “When people care for you and cry for you, they can straighten out your soul.”
Grabbing the moment
Teachers begin each school year with a brief window of opportunity. Many students coming into our classes desire a fresh start and are primed to act upon it. Knowing that, we need to be watchful for even the smallest indication that students are looking for help to carry out improvement oaths made during the summer. Our role needs to be one of a cheerleader and a task manager, never a naysayer.