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Breakthrough Story, by Val Adolph

It was my first year as a teacher. Each morning 30 bright, open-faced seven-year old faces greeted me; the responsibility of guiding these wee souls for a whole year overwhelmed me. Each one was so totally unique. Their needs, their talents, their backgrounds were so different. I thought I would never be able to know and understand each one so I could help them along and give them the learning experiences they needed.

Their previous teacher was a great support to me. She had been teaching Grade One for many years and her responses to each child in her class were almost instinctive. She was a kind, understanding woman who was generous in answering my questions and helping me establish myself in my new role as teacher.

In particular, her comments on each child’s record helped me understand them better. Her perceptions gave me a toehold, a base from which to start to understand each child. I came to rely on them as I struggled to know and help each child better.

There was one boy in the class, let’s call him Gary, who seemed different to the others. His face was bright enough, but closed. He didn’t smile readily and his eyes were always alert, like a small animal in the forest. He appeared to evaluate each lesson and only paid attention if the topic, to him, merited it. If he didn’t pay attention he was up and about, class clown, distracting the other children.

Puzzled, I consulted his record, written by this Grade One teacher who had become something of a mentor to me. To my shock, she described him as being nothing but trouble, almost impossible to control, one of the most difficult children she had ever taught. I was stunned. He didn’t seem nearly that bad to me – a bit of a nuisance, maybe, if my lesson hadn’t engaged him, but nothing worse than that. Yet I trusted this teacher’s experience and judgement.

Gary became something of a challenge to me. An obvious first step seemed to be that if he was only disruptive when my lessons didn’t interest him, then my lessons had better interest him. I took time to get to know him better and I found that, among other things, he seldom got enough sleep, often didn’t get regular nourishing meals, and had to take a lot of responsibility for two younger sisters.

I quickly found that he thrived on responsibility. I gave him a simple task to do and got a big smile for the first time. Well, there were lots more tasks in a new teacher’s classroom. He might have started by erasing the blackboard, but he soon placed himself in charge of my supply cupboard. Like magic, supplies were neatly arranged and given out and collected. I made fresh fruit available at recess time and got Gary into a lunch program.

It seemed so straightforward. Gary, like all the other children in the room, was so likeable, so eager to learn. Yet the Grade One teacher whose perception I had come to rely on had seen the child so differently. And I trusted her judgement. What was I missing? Where was I going wrong?

I mulled this over for days. Had I missed something important? Was there indeed something inherently bad in this child that would one day burst forth to shock me? It wasn’t until one day, when I had to send an important message to the principal’s office, that I got my answer.

Taking a bit of a chance I asked Gary to take the message. Because he was, after all, only seven years old I impressed on him that it was very important that he go directly to the office. He gave me his big smile – still so new to me.

“Yep,” he said, “You can trust me.”

And just as I knew right then that I could indeed trust him, I also knew that I could also trust myself and my own judgement.

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