We have all had those days when some of your students just don’t “get it”. They’re not mastering the skill or objective, no matter how many times you teach it. And every time they don’t understand, you get more frustrated. And they withdraw. Sometimes it’s just one (but sometimes a lot more than one) pulling back.
Losing one or more of your students like that means they’re not engaged. And if they aren’t engaged, they’re definitely not learning. You, as their teacher, can’t reach them. You know you’re losing them when they don’t master the lesson, or they’re not interested in trying, or (worst of all) they give in and just give up.
Last year I had a student—I’ll call him Bradley—who was up and down when it came to his engagement and motivation for any given lesson. He struggled with behavior issues, he was a fast reader but a slow worker, and on top of all that, he didn’t get along with his peers. From years past, I knew that many teachers didn’t enjoy him as a student for those very reasons.
After the first few months of school, I got to know Bradley pretty well, beyond just his classroom persona. He had a tough home life. He had an awkwardness that made him stand out among his peers—not a good thing ever but especially not in fifth grade. No one in his life seemed to accept him just for who he was—the entire package—strengths and weaknesses.
After small group one day, after he had given in and given up again, I decided to have a heart-to-heart talk with him. I looked him in the eyes and told him that I believed in him—I told him I knew he was smart, that I could see that in him, beyond all the other distractions of behavior and awkwardness. And I could also see that just telling him that he was smart out loud created a shift in him. Immediately.
I’m pretty sure he had never heard that before. No one had ever told him that he was smart—they only called him stupid. So I repeated it. You are smart. I could see that he got it. His shoulders straightened and he stood taller. You could see the person he was meant to be, the confident boy, begin to emerge.
From that day forward, Bradley’s demeanor slowly changed. He began to trust me and I pushed myself to trust him. I’m not saying that his former self didn’t spring up still with his peers, or that he was suddenly perfectly behaved and a model student. But through seeing him—the highest version of him—that better persona began to come out more often. That better person became who Bradley was, more and more each day.
Through the rest of the year, he grew in maturity and character—standing up for himself and being completely unique, as all students are, but as so many awkward students try not to be. He was okay with who he was. He missed the last day of school but he returned to say goodbye—enveloping me in a hug for the first time ever. He thanked me for being the “best teacher he ever had.”
Bradley changed. He came back from the depths of doubt, full of engagement. I chose to see him and accept him. The rest was easy.
Accepting your students—ALL of them—brings them all back. You’ll never lose a student again. As long as you rely on you—and believe in them—they’ll do great things. You will too. I have complete faith—I believe in you.