After a few months of teaching I realized one of my biggest challenges was going to be getting my students motivated. Again, I thought I’d be pretty good at this because I’d played sports my whole life and that’s all about motivation and determination so I figured I’d use my knowledge of sports to connect on a personal level with my students to get them to actually want to do their work.
Yeah, that didn’t work.
Don’t get me wrong, it worked for some but not all and not always. And in the great state of New York, you are not a highly effective teacher if you do not reach all of your students. So my post today is about one student in particular. A student that I struggled to motivate from day one. No matter how many basketball references, no matter how many serious talks about the future, this student just would not budge when it came to completing his work. And for the purpose of this post we’ll call him James.
In the beginning of the year I had been warned about James by other teachers that had him in the past. I heard loads of, “he does nothing,” and “watch your back with that one,” but I did my best not to let what anyone else said influence me. I had a decent rapport with James, he would sometimes participate in class discussions (although I could usually tell he didn’t know what the hay we were talking about), he would always come by in the morning to say hello, and he allegedly gave me less attitude than he did other teachers.
After about 6 months of doing absolutely no work and 2 failed marking periods James finally promised me that he was going to turn it around. He didn’t want to be in the 7th grade again next year. So when I gave out an assignment to write a persuasive essay about why the main character of the book Lyddie should or should not sign the petition for a 10 hour work day in MA factories in the 1850s, James swore “I got this.” And I believed him. When I got his essay a month later (it was two weeks late), I was proud of him to say the least.
At a glance it looked great! Five well constructed paragraphs, quotes that had been cited correctly, in that moment I realized that even I had been wrong about James. I should have held higher expectations for him from the very beginning. It wasn’t until about a week and a half later when I was reading through the 90+ essays that I ever noticed the content of James’s essay. There among the argument for why Lyddie shouldn’t sign the petition he went off on a tangent about Lyddie somehow going to hell if she did sign it. I had to do a double take. Not only did it not make any sense but it was long, and I had to read it. All of it.
The rest of the essay went on in much of the same way, not about hell but other random things that had absolutely nothing to do with the book we had been working on for the last 2 months. It may have been James that wrote the paper, but aren’t our students a reflection of us? I had a pretty good laugh about that after all was said and done. It may have even been in that moment that I realized I was taking myself much too seriously. It’s important to have high expectations, but sometimes its also important to find the humor in things. Especially as a first year teacher, if you can’t laugh at yourself you’ll never make it out alive.