Education reform is pretty easy -from the outside. Step into a classroom, however, and the task is more formidable, a lesson every teacher learns over and over again. One of the lessons I learned early in my teaching career was that although I intended to be both kind and respectful, I sometimes did harm in spite of my intentions. This lesson dawned on me gradually.
George was a student in one of my rambunctious afternoon classes several years ago. To pass this
class, like any other class, a student had to earn 60 percent or more of the possible points, and most students were doing much better than that -but not George.
Although he was very friendly, exceedingly polite, and nearly always smiling, he did little of the work. As the semester progressed, his attendance became spotty. He was often tardy. Getting a D on his first progress report did not encourage him to turn in more work, as I had hoped. Instead, by mid-semester, he was turning in almost nothing at all. I remember calling on him occasionally, and his answer was always the same: "I don't know."
I made sure we covered all the material in class, so I was certain that if any students failed, it would not be because the material was too difficult but because they had neglected to do the work, which could result only from such motives as sloth or willfulness. Or so I believed at the time. So, at semester's end, when I failed George, I did so not only with a clear conscience, but with the comforting belief that I was also maintaining high standards.
One easily forgets one's students, especially those who are quiet and who do not do well in class. I probably would have forgotten about George had he not become my student again several months later. He enrolled in the district's independent-study program, designed to give students one more chance to salvage their high school careers.
Apparently George had done poorly in other classes besides mine, and by the time he should have graduated, he was far behind his peers in credits. At this point, he might have, like many students in similar positions, simply become yet another statistic in the state's dropout rate -but not George.
When he enrolled in independent study, he was given his choice of teachers, and to my surprise, he chose me. He soon proved to be a far different student from the one I thought he was when he was in my class before. True, he was still the friendly, polite kid with the ready smile. But behind that friendliness was neither sloth nor willfulness, as I had once assumed. Instead, I found an eager desire to learn. George had the willingness to please as only the best students do, but it was sadly impeded by an inability to progress through the material anywhere near as rapidly as the average student.
When given the chance to work independently at his own pace, George managed in a remarkably short period of time to make up the credits he lacked. At the end of the school year, George graduated from high school.
A few days before graduation, he came to see me to thank me for working with him. To show his gratitude, he said, "When I grow up, I want to be a teacher, like you, so I too can help people." Naturally, I was caught off guard. It was I who should have thanked him for the second chance. By flunking him without first getting to know him, I had done harm even though I had meant to do good. Only through circumstance and George's good heart had I been able to discover my error.
*Kas Zoller teaches English at Maine Prairie High School in Dixon, Calif.