Assorted odors infiltrate my seventh period classroom. Thirty-two students—smelling of drugstore perfume, Dorito dust, and adolescent sweat—spill into every available space. It’s May. It’s after lunch. It’s unseasonably hot.
They clamor to sit near my oscillating fan while their skin adheres to desk chairs and tabletops in the afternoon humidity. I fantasize about the blessedly air-conditioned teacher’s lounge one floor below.
Not that I am counting, but there are two weeks left in the school year.
I haven’t given up. Yet.
Determined to focus the wandering 14-year-old minds, I pose a question. A few hands go up. The regulars. They excel in any conditions. The regulars will succeed in high school. Get scholarships. Go on to great things.
Yet surprisingly, another hand joins. Nicole!
Nicole hasn’t raised her hand all year. I see her in the halls, chattering with friends, flirting with boys, reapplying charcoal eye liner in swooping, gothic circles. Yet in here? Not a word. Nothing like her sister who sat in these same seats two years prior. She was a star pupil. A regular.
I’m delighted by Nicole’s raised hand and engaged expression. Had I finally broken through? It’s the Hail Mary Pass of Teaching to motivate a student this late in the year.
“Yes, Nicole,” I proudly ask. “What do you think?”
“Mrs. O’Connell!” she brightly responds, her face lit with enthusiasm. “You got your toenails done! I love your new color!”
Ah yes, the glories of teaching.
I often retell this tale, for its humor, yes, but also for its lessons.
First and foremost, it instantly deflated my ballooning ego. This wasn’t the World’s Greatest Writing Lesson. Even if it had been, it wouldn’t have mattered. Nicole was focused on other things. I realized—after licking my wounds of self-importance—her disinterest in my lesson didn’t mean she didn’t care. She raised her hand for the first time all year because she did care. She finally made a connection. It just wasn’t a connection to my World’s Greatest Lesson.
That day, I learned I must meet my students where they are…not where I think they should be.
They are people. Young, complicated people. Their adolescent minds worry over nail color, school shootings, poor grades, faltering friendships, divorcing parents, you name it. No amount of instruction changes that. Yet I can still honor who they are as individuals, even if the day’s lesson is lost on them.
Looking back, my favorite teachers were listeners, encouragers, and motivators. I worked harder for them because they cared more about me than their lesson.
As an adult, I’m still a little like that. I invest more when I feel honored and understood. Don’t you?
Nicole was right. I’d changed my polish color. Out of the 125+ kids through my classroom that day, she noticed. She may not have been a star writer that year, but she certainly excelled at recognizing detail.
“Thank you, Nicole,” I responded. “I like it too!” Which I quickly followed with, “Is there anything else you’d like to add?” Her head shake indicated no, but her smile revealed pride.
I returned her smile and resumed my super fabulous lesson on who knows what. Before she left that day, I thanked her for raising her hand and her kind compliment. After all, my writing lesson may not have reached her that day, but I was grateful in a weird way, I had.