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As teachers, we interact with kids constantly that we often forget exchanges we’ve had. To many of our students, those exchanges are things they have clung to in their time of need or seen as the straw that broke the camels back. We see so many kids every single day that it’s overwhelming, but I hope you remember that these interactions matter, and they can make or break students’ educational experiences. We have a profound impact on the kids we serve, and we have to declare potential when we see it. Thank you, Mr. F, for seeing mine.
I attended a small charter school from 1st until 9th grade. When I was in elementary school I was always average at best. I absolutely loved to write but my interest in school stopped there. And often, my creativity was hampered by unnecessary “writing rules” that have long been outdated. I was often in the low reading group and was never very good at math either. Most of the time, the school was uneventful and I never really enjoyed it. I was always a respectful student, but I was compliant and nothing more.
I did not know it at the time, but a lot of my issues in elementary school actually stemmed from being bored. I didn’t try too hard because I knew we would just be doing another math drill tomorrow, and I loved to write but every time I would lose myself in it, I was told I had done something wrong rather than praised for always having new ideas.
I remember being really offended in 5th grade when my friends ended up in honors classes and I didn’t. No one even told me that was an option or what it meant, but apparently, everyone else was in the loop. I felt really stupid and was made to feel that way when my peers explained why I must not have been chosen for the advanced classes. When I was approaching 7th grade, I pushed to get into honors classes. My school acted like they were being generous to put me in one: English.
English was always my best subject because even if it wasn’t something creative, I could always write with little difficulty. I was put into Mr. F’s honors English class – he was a tall bald man with a goofy attitude. Most importantly, he was passionate. I felt like he actually cared about writing as much as I did, whereas even my departmentalized teachers in elementary school never seemed this interested in their content.
He developed a great rapport with me, despite me being the angsty girl with the dyed red hair, side bangs, and grunge outfits. Boy, was he patient too – I can recall a couple of cringey exchanges I had with him where I challenged his authority, and he never once reprimanded me for it. Most importantly, I respected Mr. F as a teacher more than any other teacher I had up to this point.
I was not his best student starting out, I would miss due dates or not finish some assignments. There is a phrase people use with kids they know could do better – “you just need to apply yourself.” I heard it sometimes at home when my parents wondered why I didn’t get the better grades they knew I was capable of. I had also heard it from other teachers before, but delivery is everything.
One day early in my 7th grade year when Mr. F told me to talk to him after class, he said that same phrase to me. But that wasn’t all he said to me. He told me I had potential. He knew I was a good writer and he wanted to see more, he knew I had no reason to not finish my assignments, and that I was smarter than I believed. And he told me. For some reason, coming from him, it finally clicked for me and I realized I had never really tried very hard in school. This time though, I was done coasting.
I ended up having Mr. F for English for 8th grade as well and had a great time in that class. It was sad having to go to high school and lose him as a teacher. As I approached 9th grade, I once again was going to be put in honors English. It wasn’t until my first day of high school that I realized I had been left out again though. My friends were in advanced science and other courses, while I was in regular classes.
Extremely upset, I went to the counselor and asked why I had not been given the option. She told me it must’ve been my grades, and I reminded her I had almost all A’s in 8th grade. She gave me a form and said if I could get signatures from my previous teachers, she could potentially change my schedule. So I spent the passing periods of my first day of high school running around the middle school area of campus getting those signatures.
I was put a year ahead in science class and was now in the correct math class. I felt better about the situation, but still really upset with the fact that I had to fight again to be recognized for advanced classes. Toward the end of 9th grade when it was time to select classes, I did my research so I wouldn’t miss out on anything this time.
I wanted to be put in APUSH the following year, something my friends were automatically considered for. I was told my old social studies teacher had to approve, which he easily did. But then I was told I had to get the APUSH teacher, whom I had never met, to sign off. I approached her toward the end of lunch one day in the courtyard and asked her if she would approve of me entering her class. She pretty quickly dismissed me and said I was not ready. I pressed further and said I had a 4.0, my old teacher-supported it, and I was really excited to start my AP journey. She said, “I would not feel comfortable with you in that class. I could sign off, but you need to know I would not be confident in your placement.”
I walked away without a signature and ready to cry. I didn’t know what else I had to do to prove myself when my peers with similar grades had no problem getting approved for her class. Due to this and many other reasons, I transferred to a public school that summer. I sat with my mom in a meeting with my new school counselor where he was impressed with my academic record and let me pick whichever advanced classes I wanted to be in.
I decided while at this new school I would make sure there was no reason to doubt my abilities. I was on top of my work and had some really amazing, passionate, and encouraging teachers. Despite this, I still didn’t like school very much overall. I felt unchallenged in most courses, I got frustrated constantly listening to teachers say the same things day after day, and go over a very similar content year after year. I also found that some of the advanced classes came with elitist teachers like my old school. One of which I recall telling a student with an unweighted 3.9 GPA that he wouldn’t be able to get into ASU if he didn’t get his act together. There are discouraging teachers no matter where you go, unfortunately.
Sometime in the fall of my sophomore year, I scheduled a meeting with that supportive counselor I had met over summer and asked him if I could graduate early. Without hesitation, he got out a planning paper and figured out what classes I would need, and we discussed options for making up missed classes. He never once discouraged it or tried to talk me out of it, despite the fact that I would need to take extra courses. I ended up picking up a zero-hour during my junior year, and I took numerous courses online. My junior year became my senior year, and by the end, I had taken nine courses between campus and online.
I finished high school at 16 and got to walk across the stage like the other seniors. I turned 17 a few weeks before I moved into my dorm at the University of Arizona. Maturity-wise, I was ready for college and did well overall. I did have to change majors about halfway through because it is hard to decide what you want to do with your life at 16. I graduated from college a semester early at the age of 20 with a BA in Law.
I had some things happen in my personal life before and right after my college graduation which left me in a bind. I had been incredibly successful in college, but I was not working in the field I wanted to and I knew I needed to make a change. I had always wanted to be a teacher, but I had pushed the thought out of my head due to the low pay and lack of respect for educators in our country. But within about three months of graduating, I couldn’t push it away any longer.
I applied to ASU for graduate school, was hired while student teaching, and became certified at age 22. I pursued my second master’s degree in an accelerated program and finished after I turned 23. Currently, I am saving money to pursue a doctorate, but I would be enrolled right now if money weren’t a hurdle.
I often wonder how my story could have been different: What if teachers had noticed sooner my withdrawal from school was due to not being challenged? What if I never had that middle school teacher not only notice, but declare my potential to me? What if I hadn’t brought up the idea of graduating early to my counselor? What if I hadn’t had access to resources from my parent’s socioeconomic status, two above-average schools, or my own white privilege?
I am not the only one who has experienced alienation from their education. But we cannot forget the students we lose to those experiences. I teach them at my school – the kids who want to drop out as soon as they turn 16 and the kids who challenge the teacher and principal in hopes that they get suspended and don’t have to be at school. I make mistakes in the classroom all the time when I forget to declare their potential or praise them for their latest work that was of higher quality than usual. I strive to be better.
I want to thank Mr. F for noticing something in me that I didn’t know I had. May we all be that teacher for at least one kid in our career.
This is the first entry in our first fiction and non-fiction stories from our writers. The editors invite submissions of fiction and nonfiction of general interest (no literacy criticism). All submissions should be single-spaced and only previously unpublished material only.