This post was originally published on Pernille Ripp‘s blog: Blogging through the Fourth Dimension. This story means a lot to me. Not only has it changed my teaching, it has also changed me. So, I asked Pernille if I could also share it here.
I can still remember that day as if it were yesterday. It was my first day at a new school and my first year as an elementary teacher. My lifetime dream was coming true. So special was this day that everything around me was inspiring. I could savor every minute, every second there… just thinking of what it would be like, trying to imagine each of my new students, wondering if I would be able to connect with them, if I would be able to get the best from them. It was that day when I heard a teacher say a magical phrase, “The secret for a successful connection with students is loving them before actually meeting them.” For some reason, that phrase stayed in my mind. I wondered what she had meant by that, I couldn’t actually figure it out, but it just felt special.
When I was assigned my group, I found out that there was a boy in my class, Thomas, who had an average performance, but serious behavior problems. What’s more, he was about to be expelled from school. I was sure there was a reason for his attitude. Little did I know that the reason would break my heart; it turns out that Thomas had been a victim of sexual abuse some years before. I didn’t know that kid, but he was already my favorite student. I talked to the other teachers, but only heard things such as: “I hate that kid,” “Don’t waste your energy on him,” or “It’s a hopeless case.” Needless to say, that was one of the saddest moments in my teaching career. In his record, all I could find were terrible comments and tons of dark, colorless and aggressive drawings he had made… Everything I read, everything I heard, and everything I saw only made me want to help him more and more.
School started and I finally met my class. Thomas didn’t exactly behave well, but it wasn’t as bad as people had pictured it. I tried to connect with him from the very first moment. I would spend time talking with him, making silly jokes and just showing him I cared. Every now and then, I assigned him important roles, so I could show him how much I trusted him. I always remember calling him Tom, instead of Thomas, for the first time. I can still see his face glowing, when he came to me and whispered: “I had never had a nickname before.” I would have never imagined that such a small gesture would touch his heart.
I must admit, I was really surprised when he came to me after a couple of months and said he was willing to improve on his behavior. Not only did he try really hard, but he would also ask me at least once a day if his behavior was OK or not. In addition to this, his grades began to improve and his attitude changed. He started to make friends and he was finally able to participate in class, share his stories and speak his mind. Soon after, everyone started calling him Tom. I saw small changes in him almost every day.
I was truly touched one day, when I arrived to my classroom and found a beautiful drawing on my desk. Someone had made a drawing of me with a big pink heart on my chest. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I realized who had drawn it. I couldn’t hold the tears when I found this note on the back: “Miss Greta, I love you. Tom”
As months passed by Tom had become a brand new kid. He didn’t behave perfectly, but his attitude was different. He was passionate about learning and eager to keep making progress. It was just motivating seeing him play with his classmates during break time. Apart from that, his grades had significantly improved and by the end of the year he was one of the best students in the class.
At the end-of-year ceremony, Tom was given an award for his effort and improvement. While he was receiving the well-deserved certificate, I could see his parents and grandparents looking at him so proudly with tearful eyes. That was my “Aha” moment. It was then that I understood how powerful connecting with our students is. It was then, that I finally understood what the phrase I had heard in the beginning of the school year meant.
This experience has totally changed my outlook on teaching. It made me realize how powerful our job is. I learned that teaching is more than just following a curriculum. We get to touch people’s hearts; we get this unique opportunity of making someone’s life different by giving them tools to be better, by teaching them to believe in themselves and by showing them they are special and unique. It’s by showing them we care that we’ll get to do the most. It’s by loving them that we’ll be able to make them flourish.