About 10 years ago I was teaching at a middle school and we had a really good leadership program. Grade 8 students mentoring Grade 6 students, training them in leadership roles around the school. It was great. One of the Grade 8 students at the time, Ben (pseudonym) was a star – committed, patient, compassionate…everything you could ask for as a leader. One day I was walking down the hall at lunch and this pack of Grade 6 students was racing down the hall in a “closed” part of the school. I got mad at the kids, but I singled one out in particular, Ben’s brother Steven (pseudonym). I went on at length about how he should be more like his brother and how his brother would never act to irresponsibly. I went on with my day, thinking I had just set this boy on the right track and to be honest never thought about it again.
Fast forward two years and Steven was in grade 8 and not part of leadership. He would have been a natural. He was very talented in the arts, charismatic, kids looked up to him and he was involved in other things around the school. One day I asked him why he wasn’t in leadership and what he told me blew my mind and forever changed the way I interacted with students. This is what he said:
“Well, when I was in Grade 6 I was running in the hall with my buddies and you singled me out from all of them and told me that I should be more like my brother, and stop doing what I was doing. You didn’t even know me and those were the first words you had ever spoken to me. I didn’t like school for a long time and I never want to be in leadership.”
I was floored and did not know what to say. I had no idea the power (negative) that my words had. I apologized to Steven, knowing full well that it would not undo what I had done and resolved to change my ways and see each student for who they are, not what they should be, or who we think they should be. I learned never to have a preconceived notion about students, either as a learner or a person. I found that as a teacher my perceptions were always different from other teachers, not because I was better, but because we all perceive things in different ways.
I never thanked Steven for challenging my thinking, but I do know that he made me a better teacher that day. He made me realize that I am only effective if I truly know and understand the students we teach. We can learn so much from our students – thanks Steven.