I came out of sixth grade certain that I was stupid, especially when it came to math and science. My teacher for both subjects, Mr. Z., looked like a drill sergeant. And he never smiled.
Sadly, his attitude matched the harsh stereotype of his appearance. So he never really taught. Instead, he sat, grim-faced, on a stool next to the chalkboard, where he’d scrawled a page number from our math book. That was our cue to get to work, post haste. And it was the same for science. He filled the board with lecture-style notes and homework questions. Then he stared at us from his stool as we copied all the information and silently read our assigned textbook pages.
So, though I dared not say a word, anxiety plagued me. Most of the time, I had no idea how to get the right answers in math, and I didn’t understand the science concepts. By the fourth quarter, I was pulling low D’s in both classes, and I knew I was dumb.
That summer, my family moved to a new town, and everything about having to be “the new kid” scared me. Most of all, I feared math and science, both now taught by Mr. B. In fact, as I approached his room on the first day, I thought I’d throw up.
But Mr. B. stood in the doorway greeting his students by name…and smiling! Grinning broadly, he guessed who I was and personally escorted me to a desk near the middle of the room. And thus began an entirely new experience for me regarding math and science…and my opinions about myself.
My new teacher’s positive approach was genuine and consistent; he smiled often, and he clearly enjoyed being with us. What’s more, he didn’t just give assignments; no, he worked hard to insure that we understood. He explained things on a kid’s level, engaged us in spirited discussions, guided us through hands-on demonstrations, and offered meaningful ways for us to show our mastery of the concepts.
By the end of the second quarter, I knew I wasn’t stupid – in math or science or any other subject. So I yoked my new confidence to hard work and plowed through my middle and high school years with joy…coming out at the end as valedictorian of my class.
Now, I don’t report that to toot my own horn. Rather, I credit Mr. B. for it all. He turned me around because he saw potential – academic and otherwise – in every child who walked into his life. He poured himself out for us. He mentored us.
And so it should be for each of us who teaches, whether we greet 150 a day in AP Physics, guide several dozen through a Title I Reading program, or tutor one or two in our homeschool. Not every child is a “genius,” but no child is an idiot. Each one has gifts and potential. If we coast through our teaching careers, we trample that. On the other hand, if we demonstrate belief in our students’ abilities, they will rise to the challenge and let their individual uniqueness shine.
So what will you be? Z? Or B?