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Alone In A Crowded Classroom: Thoughts From A High School Teacher

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On Tuesday, I recognized Monday’s oversized hand-me-down concert tee on Brandon, ketchup stain still lingering dead-center of his chest. I doubt he had noticed; for all the downward looking he accomplished as he walked through the hallways, it never seemed like Brandon knew exactly what to look for. The same could be said for his presence in my class. His sullen eyes never fixed on a target and, in the rare instances that I would call on him, he looked just to the left of my head as he mumbled a deflective answer. He was getting an abysmal grade in my class from the start, and for all intents and purposes, his primary function in my class was to keep a chair warm.

The ketchup stain returned on Friday. I think Brandon had noticed at this point, sitting with his arms crossed, today looking out the window for the first half hour of my class. In the early days of our relationship, I let Brandon be. I’m a rookie teacher, still gaining my bearings, expending most of my daily minutes planning engaging lessons. I work hard to teach engaging classes through seven hours of adrenaline-soaked panic of anticipated mid-lesson failure. All the while, Brandon sat in the fourth row in my fifth-hour Spanish class, always just out of focus. With a GPA just bubbling above a 1.3, this 14-year-old had arrived in dangerous territory.

Along with death and rush-hour traffic, failure is one of life’s great equalizers. For my high school freshmen, failure is always a closer reach than success. “Adulthood” is knocking. They wake up every morning with a trained sense of urgency to complete a pre-career to-do list waxed poetic by their parents. With this pressure and even at this age, many of them perceive their ships to have already set sail. Brandon had skated through middle school and half of 9th grade with the rock-bottom level of “achievement.” No one had stopped to ask why. Brandon had spent his formative years keeping classroom chairs warm and occasionally getting past question 3 on a test. He had fallen through the cracks, and it seemed like no one had noticed.

I initially blamed Brandon for laziness. I demanded that he meet with me on his lunch to discuss his (lack of) performance in my class. He arrived promptly and I sat across from him at a student table. I asked him about his other classes: which was his favorite (history, he guesses), which was the hardest (math, but he’s never gotten math), what he was going to take next year (probably the same stuff, he also guesses.) I asked him what he felt he would need to be successful in my class. Like many of his peers, he believes “time to study before tests” would lead him to success. It certainly spoke of the tests-and-numbers culture into which Brandon entered this first year of high school.

I asked him what “success” meant to him, and he shrugged.

“Probably a good grade,” he mumbled, looking to the right this time. He uneasily left after I gave him some canned teacherly responses about effort and expectations.

After school, I sat at my desk for what seemed like hours. I was numb. Brandon had never known success personally. It was mythical for him. I’d had troubled students before, but they were all noticeable – by behavior, by reputation, by body odor – but never had I had one reach me that was so listless. The most unsettling of my conclusions of Brandon was that he didn’t seem like a kid who felt a little hopeless, but rather he seemed to have never hoped at all.

In our school “careers,” we encounter a myriad of teaching personalities. Some characters we remember forever. They’re coaches or crazy old ladies or the one you have a crush on. We typically remember the ones who made a special effort with us, and teachers are acutely aware of all of their students’ potential. I got into the profession to change kids’ lives, and at best I significantly reach a handful in a class with all of the extra roadblocks that come with being a teacher. I have had plenty of students who are lucky enough to gravitate to the top intrinsically, but at the end of the semester, I worry that I’ve failed the remainder, or that I’ll have missed the student who desperately needed to know that someone cares.

Brandon started seeing me at lunch every other day. We would spend thirty minutes painstakingly going over five-minute concepts until he would get my questions right. I spent my free time brainstorming activities for Brandon and me to work on together. He did the tasks slowly but methodically, never quick to rush to a finish line he couldn’t quite picture. Come test time, Brandon – whose test average bubbled just under 40% — managed to get a D- on the test. I plotted his test grades on a graph and had it waiting for him when he showed up one day.

He stared directly at the upwardly-sloping line graph for what seemed like a whole minute. He asked me if these scores were “really his.” I told him they were, and I thanked him for his continued work with me at lunch. I told him that his hard work had paid off and his overall grade would be out of the F range if the line continued on its path. I thanked him again for his determination and hurried him out the door so he could marinade in the concept of his first “success.” For the first time, he actually saw himself being successful. The proof was all there.

Brandon started coming in at lunch more frequently than every other day. Seemingly overnight, Brandon started volunteering answers in class. His eye contact improved, he started talking with students around him and he would engage me in the hallway. When my grading program displayed a C- next to his name near the end of the grading period, I stared at the screen until I realized I was grinning like a damn fool. I noted that of all of my students, his grade had gone up the most of any of them over the semester.

And for once, Brandon was #1.

I’m terrified that 150 Brandons passed me by this year. I’m terrified that I’ll miss a kid who’s never had someone care about him. I’m mostly terrified about the other 23 hours a day that my students experience. There is astronomical stress on my kids to both be wildly successful and have financial stability, neither of which the majority of our kids truly understand. To be honest, I don’t even know what success looks like. I guess I achieved tenuous success with Brandon, but the bigger scope is still daunting. Today’s kids are measured not by the little successes they demonstrate but the big successes that are the stuff of myth.

The last day I was with Brandon, his shirt was again stained. Having built a friendly rapport through our months of one-on-one work, I prodded him about his lunch “leftovers.”

“Come on, do you think I didn’t notice?”

Maybe he did, after all. TC mark

image – Jinx!

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    • Mary

      This is great. I just wish all teachers cared as much as you. And that the ones who do always had the time/resources/support to be as transformative as you were. Good luck! I hope you are able to touch many lives!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000562823795 Joyce Er

      Amazing <3

    • Em

      Speaking as a teenager who wants to be a high school teacher one day, I think you’re amazing for being persevering and caring enough to go through all that with Brandon. We need more teachers like you in this world! :)

    • That Girl

      Damn you for not warning me that I would cry! This is exactly why I’m going into education.

    • Jess

      As a very high achieving student, I always feel uncomfortable when given praise for my marks, when there may be a student sitting next to me who put in just as much, if not more effort than me and received a lower grade. Who’s to say that I am ‘smarter’ than that person? Why is it that a persons perceived ‘smartness’ is measured by academic success? Qualities such as those displayed by Brandon – persistence, dedication and commitment – deserve just as much recognition. As Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Great article.

      • Brandon De Souza

        this is cute on paper and stuff but “hey at least i tried” or “i work slow, that’s how i am”  doesn’t really make things happen in the  workforce where your performance actually affects others. you shouldn’t really feel ‘guilty’ about any academic performance unless you cheated or something.
         also, genius is definitely not innate. lamebook destroyed my ability to even consider that

        • http://thislazysummer.tumblr.com Jess

          But this is based on the assumption that a successful person is one who achieves success in the workplace. I definitely see your point in that higher-earning and efficient people are more likely to be those who gain high academic scores in their education, but there are other types of ‘smart.’ For example you often hear of people with autism who can barely hold a conversation but are prodigies in other particular areas, for example, being able to compose incredible music. While they may not make a lot of money in their life, you can’t deny that they are a genius in a different sense. As for your example of lamebook, I agree there are some very simple-minded people out there, but perhaps they are just people who didn’t receive a proper education which allowed them to reach their potential, or were like Brandon and were not lucky enough to have a teacher who cared. Also, in no way do I feel guilty for my performance, I am very proud of my marks. I was just making the point that I shouldn’t be classed as ‘better’ than another student based on my marks.

        • Brandon De Souza

          I see what you’re saying. But I feel like there are too many variables in the ‘construction’ of a person to be able to reach any sort of  meaningful conclusion. The school system might be flawed in some aspects but it does it’s job in getting overtly focused/intelligent people where they should be. While there should definitely be more teachers like the author, I know a decent amount of teachers who are completely disillusioned by the amount of students who don’t give a shit about their efforts.  Here’s something I think we can agree on though. Parents (and teachers) really need to step their shit up. Don’t create a life if you aren’t willing to give it the attention and resources it deserves to become somebody.

          (PS, I really wish I knew more about nurture/nature. Anyone qualified want to talk about it? Sillender (at) gmail )

        • Anonymous

          There are different types of intelligences, skillsets, etc etc etc. One of the hard things about my job is trying to figure out how to balance teaching my students the mainstream-work skills and fostering their individual skills. With 150 of them each day, it can be tough. I try and think back to my impact teachers, and those I remember who didn’t have too much of an impact on me I try to imagine as having had confidence in my own ability to pull myself up by my bootstraps.

        • http://thislazysummer.tumblr.com Jess

          But this is based on the assumption that a successful person is one who achieves success in the workplace. I definitely see your point in that higher-earning and efficient people are more likely to be those who gain high academic scores in their education, but there are other types of ‘smart.’ For example you often hear of people with autism who can barely hold a conversation but are prodigies in other particular areas, for example, being able to compose incredible music. While they may not make a lot of money in their life, you can’t deny that they are a genius in a different sense. As for your example of lamebook, I agree there are some very simple-minded people out there, but perhaps they are just people who didn’t receive a proper education which allowed them to reach their potential, or were like Brandon and were not lucky enough to have a teacher who cared. Also, in no way do I feel guilty for my performance, I am very proud of my marks. I was just making the point that I shouldn’t be classed as ‘better’ than another student based on my marks.

      • Sarah

        I live by that Einstein quote. I’ve never known anyone who was a high achieving student who recognized that others work just as hard as them, but don’t get the same grades. As a student with a learning disability, I worked just as hard, if not harder than the kids who were always on high honor roll, but rarely got recognized for it by more than 1 teacher my entire school career. And to top it all off, my IQ is in the 92 percentile, which is at least comparable to the “high achieving students. Go figure :)

    • Greg

      And this is why I have always wanted to teach high school.
      God, this made me so happy. I’m saving this, Sean.

      • Aelya

        Ditto. On both the high school thing and saving this piece. 

    • http://www.twitter.com/mexifrida Frida

      I’m glad that there are people like you who are willing to put everything they have into making someone feel like they matter.
      I don’t know if I could do it, and I commend you for it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/grc15r Gregory Costa

      I worked for a high school in Fall River.  One of my students was kicked out of the Boston system for punching her teacher in the face; two of her brothers were charged with murder.   Fall River, if you remember, is the city where a woman drowned in a pool and wasn’t discovered until 2 days later.  Anyhow, it was an incredibly stressful experience for me, but at the same time incredibly rewarding.  Maybe one day I’ll return to teaching high school. 

    • Anonymous

      Youre a good man , Sean Duff.

    • Anonymous

      Youre a good man , Sean Duff.

    • Anonymous

      Some education experts have called what you wrote a “winning streak”.  Often times students find themselves in “losing streaks’ that make them feel useless, among other things.  They begin to lose confidence and, like you said, do not really know what success is, let alone how to achieve it.  It is essential to get students on “winning streaks”, as it will start them on their way to entering a culture of success.  As for you, Sean, unfortunately you cannot reach them all.  However, it takes less than you think to raise the confidence of many students.  As soon as a student’s grades begin to rise, however great or minimal it may be, show them their progress.  There is a good chance that they will feel like winners, and they’ll be more likely to really that maybe they do understand what success is and how to achieve it.  Great job!

    • Anonymous

      Some education experts have called what you wrote a “winning streak”.  Often times students find themselves in “losing streaks’ that make them feel useless, among other things.  They begin to lose confidence and, like you said, do not really know what success is, let alone how to achieve it.  It is essential to get students on “winning streaks”, as it will start them on their way to entering a culture of success.  As for you, Sean, unfortunately you cannot reach them all.  However, it takes less than you think to raise the confidence of many students.  As soon as a student’s grades begin to rise, however great or minimal it may be, show them their progress.  There is a good chance that they will feel like winners, and they’ll be more likely to really that maybe they do understand what success is and how to achieve it.  Great job!

      • Anonymous

        That’s the word, Señorita Ohio. Thanks!

    • Anonymous

      Some education experts have called what you wrote a “winning streak”.  Often times students find themselves in “losing streaks’ that make them feel useless, among other things.  They begin to lose confidence and, like you said, do not really know what success is, let alone how to achieve it.  It is essential to get students on “winning streaks”, as it will start them on their way to entering a culture of success.  As for you, Sean, unfortunately you cannot reach them all.  However, it takes less than you think to raise the confidence of many students.  As soon as a student’s grades begin to rise, however great or minimal it may be, show them their progress.  There is a good chance that they will feel like winners, and they’ll be more likely to really that maybe they do understand what success is and how to achieve it.  Great job!

    • douchegirl

      Made me tear up at work. I loved this!

    • Anonymous

      keeep doing what you do. We need more people like you in this world. THANK YOU

    • Anonymous

      keeep doing what you do. We need more people like you in this world. THANK YOU

    • Amanda Brockman

      I’m a high school Spanish teacher too!  The best feeling ever is helping a student become motivated and then watch them succeed.  Thanks for your article.

      • Anonymous

        You work those verbs, prima. Thanks.

    • guest

      This was great. 

      I’ve had a few teachers to whom I will be ever-grateful. Just want to let you know that you guys are  amazing people. 
      Thank you.

    • guest

      This was great. 

      I’ve had a few teachers to whom I will be ever-grateful. Just want to let you know that you guys are  amazing people. 
      Thank you.

    • Brandon De Souza

      Sweet article, good teachers are really undervalued.

      Does anyone else feel some sort of curious discomfort when seeing their name referencing somebody else in print…? 

    • Luvmyhubbymike05

      So Good!!! 

    • Humano

      I wish to have a teacher like you

    • Rose

      this is fantastic and you should be so proud of yourself for not just letting him continue to slip by. having been taught by teachers who are this invested by what they do has made me seriously consider going into teaching when i leave university next year.
      i live in the uk where there is a programme called ‘teach first’, which trains graduate students from the top universities to go and teach in low-achieving schools. it’s difficult to get onto, but i think it is an incredibly important organisation. 

    • Chase V

      This is a great piece! As a future teacher myself i enjoyed reading it and also benefited from it

    • Jennifer

      There are too many students like Brandon and not enough teachers like you.

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