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Every future teacher has a lot to learn in college, but as I would soon find out after my college graduation day, nothing beats the “on the job training” you get when you go through that first year of teaching. I was so excited when I received my first teaching job in Florida back in the 1970s. History teachers were “a dime a dozen” during those years, so I felt very fortunate to get this job. God had certainly put me in the right school by surrounding me with many other young teachers and with a principal, assistant principal, and a department chairwoman that really wanted to see me succeed.
Just a few days after my interview with my principal, he told me, “We are painting the classrooms this year. You have a choice of beige or light blue. What do you want?”
I thought, “neat”, not only do I have a job making $7,100 dollars a year, but I also get to pick the color of my very first classroom!
“Oh, definitely light blue,” I told the principal with the utmost confidence, “because it will match all my history posters and decorations.”
He just smiled, and I got my light blue classroom. I am sure my principal, however, was thinking, “Bless her little heart, she doesn’t have a clue what this first year of teaching 150 high school students will really be like for her.”
Since I was teaching American history that year, I decided that I would coordinate all my wall decorations, timelines, and posters in red, white, and blue. I spent hours on it and boy did it look great!
I had also decided that I was going “to make” every 11th-grade student love history as much as I did. I poured hours and hours into my lesson plans. Now, remember this was before computers and the Internet. My main tools in the classroom were a blackboard and a box of dusty white chalk, as well as a mimeograph machine downstairs for making those wonderful purple-colored handouts for my students.
When the first day of school finally arrived, I may have even dressed in red, white, and blue. I don’t remember, but I hope not. I had big plans to “wow” my students with my grandmother’s stories of being engaged to a World War I soldier, my father’s unbelievable stories of fighting in World War II, and how I felt in the 7th grade when the principal came over the intercom to tell us that President Kennedy had been shot.
As the weeks progressed, I got to know my students more and more and by the Spring I really knew their academic abilities as well as most of their individual personalities. I felt I was progressing pretty well as a teacher.
I did, however, have one particular student that was, well, puzzling to me. His name was Philip. He was very quiet, never talked to anyone, and just didn’t join in with the typical high school behavior of talking too much or groaning every time I assigned homework or gave a test, but Philip was a good student. He turned in all his homework and always, and I mean always made a “B” on every history test I gave. He never made a lower or higher grade, but always that predictable “B”.
Philip even looked a little different than the other students. In fact, he looked older than the typical 17-year-old teenager. His face and arms were weather-beaten and I could tell by his muscular build that he was most likely working in the orange groves after school. I thought to myself, he is probably lifting a lot of heavy machinery in the groves and working a lot of long hours after school and maybe on the weekends. I really didn’t know for sure. He never smiled or laughed, he was just serious, like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders.
One afternoon, I was sitting at my desk grading papers, when I got to Philip’s test, I was shocked. His test grade was a “D”. That was not the Philip I knew. I decided that I was going to ask him about it.
The next day, I waited until the bell rang at the end of class and then quietly said, “Philip, could you stay for a minute or two?” I didn’t want to embarrass him in front of the other students.
He nodded yes.
I walked up to his desk where he remained seated and placed the test in front of him. “Philip,” I said, “you know you always get a ‘B’ on my test, and this time you got a ‘D’. That’s just not like you; would you like to take the test over?”
For a few seconds, he just stared straight ahead and said nothing. Then he looked up at me with tears streaming down his leather-like, weather-beaten face.“You are the only one that cares about me,” he said through his tears. Click To Tweet
I was stunned. I didn’t even respond. I just stood there.
Finally, Philip picked up his test and walked out of my classroom.
I was left alone without any other students coming through the doorway at the end of the day. I slowly turn around and look at my beautifully decorated red, white, and blue walls. Oh, I thought, it’s not these pretty walls that mean so much to him. I thought about all of the well-planned lessons I had worked so hard on, but that’s not what Philip talked about.
As I stood in my empty classroom, his words kept coming back to me as an echo, “You are the ONLY one that cares about me, you are the ONLY one that cares about me...”
It was my caring and concern for him that had touched him, not my well-thought-out lesson plans, or colorful posters, or interesting stories.
The next day, I gave Philip another test and he got his usual “B” and we never talked about it again. Today, decades later, I would have asked him a lot of questions, talked to his counselor, etc., but as a first-year teacher, I just didn’t do that. I just didn’t know to do that.
But, that day changed me forever. Philip had changed me. I would never be the same teacher again. Oh, yes, I decorate the room each year and plan great history lessons, and tell all those wonderful stories. But, what’s really on my mind when I see a new group of students coming in each year is who needs me to care about them? Who needs me to be a little extra nice today or say an encouraging word or give them a second chance?
Yes, Philip, I do care about you. You not only changed my life. but the lives of all those thousands of students that would come after you into my classroom year after year. You taught me well, Philip. I will never forget you because I see your face anew every year.
I thought I would also add some of the classroom strategies that I have used over the years:
- I stand at the door and greet my students as they enter the room. This gives me an opportunity to determine and prepare for the mood of the students. In my teaching career, some schools require this, and some don’t. I think it’s a great strategy.
- Compliment students. They love it.
- Ask, don’t tell the students to correct their behavior. “Would you put your cell phone away, please? Thanks.” You can always get more assertive later if this approach doesn’t work.
- Try to notice and bring out the shy and insecure students without embarrassing them. “Wow, you are really a good essay writer.” Shy students can go a lifetime with no one really noticing them.
- Smile! It’s reassuring and throws the rowdy students off guard.
- Try treating the challenging students like you just assume they are a “good kid”. Sometimes they are so shocked; they will rise to the occasion and be so good for you.
- Remember, for some students you may be the only stable person in their life. They can count on you to always be the same. Just showing up for your job dressed in a professional manner and keeping a routine they can count on, is something they may not get from anyone else in their world.
- Care about them. Really care about them. They know when you don’t.
- Let them make their own decisions about their behavior. I know that sounds a little crazy, but I tell the students if this behavior continues, “This is what I will have to do .., but it’s your decision about what will happen next. I want them to realize they have a choice, but they must accept the consequences that follow, good or bad. This cuts down on a lot of confrontations between a teacher and a student. It also allows them to “save face” in front of the class. After all, they had a choice and they made their own decision. I want the students to respect me, not hate me. Ninety percent of the time, they make the right choice. When they don’t, I say “are sure that’s what you want?” Very seldom do I have to follow through with the negative consequences.
- Pray for them. They are always in my prayers even though they don’t know it.