The start of the school year always puts a smile on my face. Even as a former teacher for many years, the excitement in a brand new year filled with possibility and positivity brings joy to me in so many ways.
We have a clean slate today is what I used to tell my students on the first day of school. I taught teenagers who had their own set of challenges and beliefs from past years and judgments from teachers who may or may not have understood them. They brought their own baggage to my classroom consisting of how they were treated, what their beliefs were about their knowledge and potential and added to it all was the expectation that this year would be the same as in the past.
I obliterated all of that on the first day of class with one small sentence.
You have an A in this class as of right now and your job is to keep it.
It was a message that I adopted from a movie with Michelle Pfeiffer years ago called Dangerous Minds. In the movie, she was an ex-Marine turned teacher who struggled to connect with her students in an inner city school. Granted it was a movie, but the theme of choice in keeping the A grade worked for her and worked wonders for me as well, even though I was not teaching in an inner city.
That simple sentence and mindset worked its magic for us all! It gave the freedom of choice to every student’s mind as to whether they wanted to keep the A gift or not. It gave them responsibility to keep the A which is harder than to earn an A I think. It gave them peace to know they began with an A, but the responsibility was theirs to maintain the efforts to keep the gift.
Even when the gossip was that X student was troubled or Y student was lazy or Z student was rambunctious in class, I reminded them that I did not listen, nor did I pay attention to idle stories of their past performance in school. What was important to me (and important for them to understand) was that from this day forward, it mattered what we did together in this classroom. I gave them my word that I would support them by what they showed me in my class. I only focused on what they personally showed me here. I also told them that I would stand up for them if needed in the future.
I gave and received respect and I explained that we were a family in the classroom. We were united in learning here and respect was key as were communication, kindness and effort.
What I found was that my students rose to my expectations and exceeded them. I had a few rowdy students whose reputations preceded them that first year of my speech. I wasn’t sure how it would go, but they surprised me, themselves, the other students and their parents and administration by excelling in my class. Their potential had been locked away by their past reputations and when they chose to have a clean slate, their grades, lives and reputations changed dramatically for the better!
True to my word, when one of them got in trouble outside of my classroom, I went to the principal about this particular student. I stood up for him, showing his grades and the fact that he did his homework consistently for me (and I gave homework every night)! He was misbehaving in other classes and not doing his work, but for me, for some reason, he worked! When I told him what I had done, he beamed and thus began a transformation as I told him that if he could do this for me, and for himself, I expected he could do it in his other classes. His response was that the other teachers weren’t me. I suggested he not do it for them, but for himself.
I can happily report that he chose to change his attitude and his efforts and by the following year, his clean slate mentality was greatly improved. He came back to see me years later to tell me how I had changed his life and he was grateful. I hugged him and told him that it wasn’t me, it was he who chose to do it. I simply walked the path with him as he transformed his life and began to live to his potential.
I miss teaching and making a difference in my students’ lives and feeling the difference that they made in mine. We all have that potential and I love it when we choose to live it!