On the last day of my internship in a high school English classroom, one of my students gave me a card and some chocolates. You might think ‘ok great nice gesture’ and then move on, but you’d be wrong because this ordinary act was actually a powerful demonstration of the power of caring. This is why:
This student, let’s call her Leah, is in the Gr.10 Applied English class that I have been student teaching in for 7 weeks (for those who don’t know, ‘Applied’ classes are for students who struggle with school and/or are focusing on going to community college rather than university). At the start of my internship, she wasn’t there and I didn’t meet her until about a week in because she had decided to skip class for a week or so. This was her second high school which she moved to after being expelled from her previous one for violence. I later found out she lived with her mother who had a DUI and required Leah to be her designated driver when she was drunk, which apparently happened quite frequently. The family had no father and very little money. Leah’s mark was at 30%-the lowest a teacher can give out, almost entirely due to her absences and just not handing anything in. However, after my associate teacher called home a few times and the end of the school year approached, Leah decided that she did want her English credit after all, if only so she didn’t have to come back next year. She started showing up a little more and occasionally handed something in.
After Leah actually started showing up to class, albeit always late, I got to know her a bit more. She was a sullen, angry girl who only ever talked about why people were irritating her and how she had been expelled from her previous school. My associate teacher, the classroom’s educational assistant, and I all attempted cheerily to build relationship with her and encourage her to hand work in.
Every class I made sure to smile and ask her how she was, and always respond positively when she said something negative. This has generally been my tactic for all my classes when kids complain about something: don’t deny that the student in question is upset and is right to be upset (or irritated or peeved or whatever), instead focus on shifting it to the positive, demonstrating the power of a positive attitude rather than just telling the kid to suck it up buttercup.
Gradually, oh so gradually, Leah’s attitude started to change. It was mostly subtle-at first she didn’t talk about being angry as much and didn’t snap at things the other students in the class said. Then she started handing in work regularly. And slowly, her mark went up. She started smiling more and skipping less, and generally was acting more friendly. She even came to class while her friends skipped, and on time no less.
Then one day a couple weeks ago the class got an updated mark. Leah marched up to me and proudly informed me her mark was at a 50% on the dot. Out of all 70 of my students over the 3 classes, she was the most proud of her mark that was barely a passing grade. And you know what? So was I! For the rest of the term she continued to hand in work and kept me updated of her rising mark (‘Miss, I have a 54%-that’s another 4 whole percent!’). We chatted and joked and talked about English and I told her how amazing her turn-around was and how proud I was of her work, continuing to encourage her to keep going.
So on that last day, when she sheepishly brought the card that spelled ‘To’ wrong and the chocolates wrapped in already used tissue paper to the front of the class, you can understand why my heart sang. She wrote in the card that it was from the whole class but signed her name after writing ‘I’ll miss you!’ at the bottom of the card. I gave her a hug, told her I was proud of her, and wished her all the best, trying to hold it together and not cry.
With all of this, I’m not trying to say that Leah’s life was transformed. I’m not saying she’s going to get on the honour roll one day and become a doctor and save the world. What I am saying is that she changed, and that most of that change came from herself but maybe part of it came because her teachers cared about her and demonstrated that care. And I feel so privileged to have been able to be even the tiniest little bit a part of that.
Caring matters and it works and it helps people, regardless of your job or situation. Care for people and watch them grow. Trust me, it’s an amazing feeling.