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It was my very first year teaching, and I was a nervous wreck. Fresh out of college, I had my diploma, my brand-spankin’ new ID badge and a plan to change the world. I was excited about working in a Title I school and (thought) I was prepared for the challenges that came with it. What would the students think about a young, white teacher coming into their class? What would the veteran teachers think of this young, innovative teacher with exactly 0 years experience? As scared as I was, I pushed through my apprehension and walked into class that first day like a boss.
I fell in love with the conscious discipline teaching strategy and implemented it into my class from day one. I quickly created a class of eager learners who felt appreciated, loved, and important. Although each student had his/her unique struggles and weaknesses, we created a solid family environment based on trust, consistency, and love.
But although my students undoubtedly felt important, empowered and loved, nothing could make up for my lack of experience in the art of teaching. As instructed, we focused solely on the importance of the standardized tests, and I worked diligently to ensure everyone was prepared for the big day. As the testing season rolled around, I hid my nervousness and apprehension in silly songs, educational raps, and whole brain learning techniques that I was sure would help them ace the test. When the big day came, I left a note on each of their desks reminding them that they were ready for this.
Weeks went by as we impatiently waited for the results. And then they came in, my heart sank! I felt like I was going to throw up. Seven of my students failed. Seven!! That was half of my class. Before I could pack up my things and run away forever, my principal called me into her office. I couldn’t help but bawl my eyes out and assure her over and over that if she needed to fire me, I totally understood. Through the tears (both hers and mine), she assured me that I was not out of a job and that I had something special that these kids needed. Were the scores great? No.Was she sure I was the right person for the job? Absolutely!
I was sick to my stomach for days. How could this happen? How could I have let them down? They needed me, they trusted me, and I felt like I had failed them. Then, an idea hit me. I’d never been the kind to cower away from a problem or play the victim. I may have fallen short, but I had an opportunity to fix it. I sat down at my desk with the list of seven children who failed. I took a deep breath and called their parents. With each ring, I wanted to hang up, but I gripped the phone and waited for the “Hello?”
I explained, through tears, to each parent how responsible I felt and how I had to make it right. They tried to make me feel better by saying I was a first-year teacher or that I did my best, but for me, that wasn’t enough. I asked each parent if I could tutor their child over the summer, for free, so they would be better prepared to take the make-up test. Five out of the seven took me up on my offer, and for the first time, I could breathe.
Throughout the summer I drove to houses, apartments and public parks to sit with these eager learners and help them understand. They cherished the special one-on-one attention and were thankful for the individualized learning plan I created for each of them. I bonded with them over the summer and got to know them on a deeper level. One was the oldest of 6 kids and as an eight-year-old was already responsible for watching over the little ones. One had just lost his mother to cancer; another had to reschedule our visits so he could visit his father and brother in jail. These were good kids, smart kids, enthusiastic kids, who just needed someone to put a little extra effort into them.
I called each of them the night before their test and told them how proud I was of them. I encouraged them to take their time, read slowly, and remember the techniques and tools we had practiced. And then I waited. This second round of waiting was more excruciating than the first. I had no Plan C. I had no idea what I would do if they all failed. I would be embarrassed and defeated, and I couldn’t let myself think about it for too long.
Weeks later, driving home, my phone rang. It was an unidentified number, and usually, I don’t pick up. But I did this time. It was the sweet voice of one of my students, calling to tell me she had passed. I could hear the smile in her voice and her mother’s laughter in the background. I had to pull over; I could not drive through my tears.
One by one, each student called to share the good news. All of them had passed. They thanked me over and over, but I reminded them that THEY were the ones who accepted the help, stayed consistent, and worked hard. We made a good team, but they put in the effort, and they should feel so proud of themselves.
Things got better each year after that. I learned that teaching the standards and passing the test is important, but not as important as the bonds we create and the relationships we form with our students. I learned to dig deep into each student to find out more about who they are as a person so I can better serve them as a student.
As teachers, it is our job to see the strengths and unique characteristics of every student in our class and to see them as more than just data and a test score. We must continue to do more than is expected to reach all of our students, to make them feel capable, valuable and confident. If I had to do it all over again, I would not change a thing.
Our kids are more than just test scores. And I’d go through the humiliation, defeat, and heartbreak of half of my class failing again in a second if it meant finding a way to make students see their full potential.
by Diana Eastman
Diana Eastman McCarthy is a freelance writer, UCF grad and #boymom. She’s from Orlando Florida, loves pizza and running, and when she’s not writing, she enjoys Disney trips with her family and binge watching junk TV”.