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February 1, 2012
Vol. 69
No. 5

One to Grow On / For the Unlikely Ones

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An act of faith begins when a teacher looks at a young person and says, "This one's not doing well enough."

I had dinner recently with a group of college students. Our host was my friend Terry Greenlund, who'd been a teacher and mentor to the students around the table. As they reflected on their history with Terry, Andre said, "Know what my first memory of you is, Terry? When you made me sit down next to you to do my homework. You made me stay there for five minutes. I thought I was going to die for sure."
When Terry met Andre, he was an elementary student who spent too much time in the principal's office. His schoolwork was weak. He came from a low-income, complicated family situation and was in danger of becoming the wrong kind of statistic. The kind of kid that hovers between "easy to overlook" and "Why did he end up in my class?"
Andre continued with the story. When he could finally sit and attend to work for five minutes, Terry required 10; when he could handle 10, Terry asked for 15. "I was thinking the other day when I was studying," Andre mused, "I can keep at it now for hours without noticing."
That's a story starter, but the real story is long, painful, and exhilarating. Along the way, there was tutoring; medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); visits to a counselor; mediocre grades; outings to museums; and a trip to South Africa—too many things for a short space. The sum of it is that Terry and Andre constructed a dream. There may be nothing more demanding or rewarding within the reach of a teacher.
I've learned lots about teaching from Terry, mostly by watching him and listening. I once asked him to say in a nutshell what he does to guide students from low prospect to high success. He listed four principles.

1. Engage in acts of faith.

An act of faith begins when a teacher looks at a young person and says, "This one's not doing well enough." It takes on a form when that teacher pledges, "I'll be a catalyst for a more promising outcome."
Terry explained how he approaches a student who worries him. He communicates to that student that he sees him or her—and observes something worthwhile. Delivering that message requires what Terry calls a concrete manifestation of belief. He might simply say, "Here's something I read yesterday that reminded me of you. Read it and tell me what you think." Or, "I have a chance to nominate someone for an afterschool program that seems pretty interesting. I want to nominate you." The message might be embedded in an invitation: "I need help getting labs set up twice a week. Would you come up on lab days and help me get the room ready?"
Terry takes kids like Andre to their first college-level basketball game and asks them to imagine themselves playing in the game. That begins the journey from believing a dream is possible to realizing one's dream—to seeing the possibilities and acting on them.

Offer opportunities.

When a kid lives in a constricted universe, ruts come to look like the horizon. For Andre, attending graduate school was initially a dream too far; even summer camp seemed like something from an alternate universe. Terry shows such kids what's possible. He'll give a young man a set of brochures for space camp, basketball camp, and a summer music program, and ask him to decide which one sounds most interesting. Three interdependent processes follow from this action. Terry begins to know the young person as an individual, the two of them begin to develop trust, and they create goals and discuss how to achieve them. And all those things center on an opportunity that extends the student's horizon.
Spend time with a kid who should try out for a play or the basketball team or who aspires to create a truly cool class project. Study the student's strengths. Help that young person set and pursue goals that reflect those strengths. Learn from the student's culture, even as you invite the student to learn about yours. Listen for the fears that come with the hopes. Be there for the whole trip.

3. Bridge the gulf.

The gulf between nowhere and somewhere is wide. Teachers who mentor for success need to help kids learn to live in the two worlds that success will require—the world of their past and that of their future.
Duane, another of Terry's students, talked about how terrified he was in his first advanced placement class: "I realized every other kid in there had been groomed for success in that class since before kindergarten. They were pros at a language and a school game I didn't even know existed."
By getting to know a student, you'll identify that learner's gulf. The kid who misses too much school may never have learned to read. The kid who's always late may never have accepted responsibility for setting an alarm clock and getting up when it rings. Duane didn't know how to talk to a teacher. Andre didn't know how to sit still.
Mentors need to develop clarity about what successful people do and how they think in terms of mastering knowledge—and mastering life. They need to teach those skills and model them.

4. Persist.

Kids who come from far behind can, with committed support, learn to soar. In the process, they sometimes crash. They need someone with a longer vision and greater wisdom than their own to be there when that happens.
One boy Terry had reached out to, Will, was expelled from a prep school just before winter holidays for stealing another student's jacket. Terry guessed that Will didn't know how to talk to his peers in his old neighborhood about who he was becoming in the new school in a far-away place. But they'd understand a sharp-looking leather jacket.
Will was devastated. Terry was hurt and frustrated. "I didn't tell him how costly his actions were," Terry said. "He already knew. I just said, 'It will take very hard work to move beyond the decision you made when you stole the jacket. If you want to do that work, I'll be here for you.'"
If all teachers lived these principles with kids they care about, we'd change the world. Consider how Andre's story came full circle. Andre graduated from college and elected to teach in the poorest school in the low-income district where he grew up. During his first teaching year, his students surpassed his expectations in terms of their academic achievement and their behavior as citizens of the school. Andre believed they would excel, and he let them know that. He provided opportunities that extended their limited perspectives. Andre is now in a doctoral program preparing to teach teachers. I think that's a very good thing.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia's School of Education and Human Development. The author of more than 300 publications, she works throughout the United States and internationally with educators who want to create classrooms that are more responsive to a broad range of learners.

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