Appreciating Small Acts

Everyone who has been in school knows that student.  The one where the whole class groans or laughs every time she raises her hand, regardless of my constant reminders that all questions deserve respect, and the best way to solve confusion is to ask questions.  She asked tons of questions though.  It was a constant assault:  What does analyze mean?  Wait, so the Ottoman Empire was Muslim?  Does the thesis need to be at the beginning of the essay?  When is the homework due?  Can you go over that again?

Renata (not her real name) was that student to a T.  She’d ask four, five, six questions a day.  Every day.  Asking me to repeat directions, clarifying things that seemed completely obvious to everyone else.  She was just all over the place.  Renata was an incredibly kind and conscientious student, quick to lend a hand to other students, but she really struggled with the class.  AP World History moves quickly and she was regularly behind with the reading, and her writing was like her questions: confusing and scattered.  She particularly struggled with tests.  She would completely psych herself out with stress and would fail the test.

I actively proctor when I give tests.  I walk around.  I check students work.  I read over their shoulders.  We’ve all got that story of the teacher (usually and older man) who would sit at his desk reading the paper while all the kids cheated on the test.  That is not me. During one of our tests I saw she was struggling.  I’d looked at Renata’s test a couple of times and she was moving slowly and her normally upbeat demeanor was off.

Time to time Renata would ask me for definitions to words she didn’t understand on a test and ask clarifying questions, but she wasn’t doing it that day.  She had that look that students get when they’re about to give up.  She was looking around the room.  Not looking at other students’ tests, but just hoping, praying for inspiration to strike and tell her all the answers, looking for any possible clue from the maps and posters around the room and receiving none.

I went over to my desk, picked up a stack of yellow Post-It notes and scrawled a quick message.  “Stay calm.  Trust yourself.”  I walked over to Renata, dropped it on her desk without a word, and  walked away to check on other students.  She took a couple deep breaths, and finished the test looking dejected. The next day in class things were back to normal with her regular attitude, and barrage of questions.  I quickly forgot the note.

We finished the year and Renata barely passed the class with a low C due to significant effort rewriting essays, and a mountain of questions.  She was happy to get the grade.  A C- is not a particularly noteworthy grade, but AP Wold History was a big stretch for Renata, and she’d worked hard to get that C.  She was proud of her hard work and I was happy to have her as a student.

Jump to about a year later.  She’s a now a junior and I’m in my classroom after school helping a few of my new sophomores to understand the links between the printing press, the Protestant Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution.  Renata comes in and patiently waits until I’m done with my other students, and then comes over:

“Hey Mr. McCormick, guess what?”

“Good to see you Renata.  What’s up?”  I respond.

“You totally changed my life.  I just got an A on my history test.  I also know what my career will be.”

“Congratulations on the test.  That’s awesome!”  I respond, then I grok the rest of her statement and abruptly say, “I did what?”

“You changed my life.  You’re seriously the best teacher I’ve ever had.”

“Thank you,” I politely reply, flattered, and somewhat taken aback.

“I’m serious!” she insisted, sensing my readiness to deflect with humility and almost jumping off the ground with emphasis.  “You never made fun of me.  You always answered my crazy questions.  You made me realize I can work hard.”

I demurred and equivocated, trying to hide my growing feeling of pride, while making it clear I was grateful for the praise by saying things like “Just trying to do my best,” or “I’d do the same for every student,” and “don’t all your teachers do that?”  Knowing full-well that if she has to highlight that I didn’t make fun of her, it means that at some point a teacher did, or still does.

She wouldn’t let me go with false modesty.  “No! You really changed my life.  Remember that Post-it note you gave me?”

I had no idea what she was talking about.  “Not at all.  What did I do?”

She then described the note I’d given her during the test, and how it’d given her the confidence to finish the test, and not give up on the class.  She also told me that she kept it.  That little, wrinkled, yellow, Post-it note, with my bad handwriting scrawled on it.  She taped it to the inside cover of her binder.  Every time she has a test or quiz she takes it out to re-read it.  She said this simple note helped her remain calm during stressful tests because she knows that all she needs is to trust herself and remain focused.  She takes a couple deep breaths and takes her tests with confidence now instead of giving in to stress and mentally shutting down.

I tried to downplay the importance of that note, tell her it’s all up to her, that I had nothing to do with it, but I couldn’t.  She wouldn’t let me.

Renata kept insisting that my simple vote of confidence in her made the difference in her performance.  My expectations of her potential ability had a direct link to her demonstrated ability.  It was such a tiny piece of effort on my part.  I wrote two lines on a scrap of paper, and that simple gesture had a massive impact on her mindset.  Renata went through a sea change in her attitude regarding tests, and she completely credits that small note.

I leave notes for students all the time without thinking much of it.  It’s a nice way to give a student some feedback without making a big, public deal about it.  When students are working well, or need a quick redirection, I’ll leave them a small note and move on to the next student, or another group.  It’s just a quick reminder that I’m watching and paying attention to their work, even when they don’t think I am.  I do it out of efficiency.  I don’t want to interrupt students in the middle of their work in order to give them timely feedback.  I usually thought nothing of it.

Renata’s story, and her praise remind me that my actions as a teacher carry weight.  Far more weight than I usually think.  She reminds me that my students are still finding their way, and that sometimes the students we think are the most lost, are working the hardest to find out where to go.  Renata asked a barrage of questions everyday because she had such a deep desire to find answers and fix her ignorance.  Despite my best attempts at humility, Renata was insistent that I had helped her simply by being kind and treating her questions seriously; by taking her as she was, without judgment; something I usually take for granted.  It took almost no effort on my part, and those small actions continue to make a positive impact in her life.

Before she left that afternoon I asked her about what she said about finding her career.  On her way out the door she replied that she wants to be a social worker because “I want to help people get better too.”

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