Not too long ago, a friend who had sustained great success as a teacher shared most her memorable story as a teacher with me. She told me, that on the first day of every school year she did the same thing. She asked students in her English classes questions to get to know them, and she shared her life journey in the form of a life map. Students always entered the class, she introduced herself as Mrs. Jacobson and proceeded to show them, via her life map, how she arrived into teaching. Each year, she expressed the importance of her journey, and how each experience made her who she was today. She then gave students supplies and asked them to create their own map, outlining their future number one goal and the journeys that they would like to embark on to achieve those goals. She told students, “Pay particular attention to this year. Talk about what grade you would like to earn each 9 week grading period, and then what you would like to have learned by the end of the school year. We will revisit the maps each grading period to see if we have reached our goals.”
The exercise was always a success! Students illustrated that they wanted to follow the road that led them to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants, athletes, etc. Every 9 weeks, students became closer and closer to reaching their yearly goals. They managed them, kept track of them, and many even exceeded them. One student, in particular, she remembered so vividly was Paul. Paul had left his map blank. When Mrs. Jacobson asked him why, he replied, “I’m going to be a jailbird like every other man that I know! And I don’t want to do this stupid map!” Jacobson backed up, not pushing Paul to complete the personal assignment. See, Paul was nineteen, and clearly too old to be in her 9th grade English class. He never completed the assignment, never revisited it, and his response was the same each time. “I’m going to be a jailbird like every other man that I know! And I ain’t to do this stupid map!”
Throughout the year, she attempted to help him be successful and set goals. She called parent meetings, tried to take interest in what he liked, but nothing worked. The year was an uphill battle, and by the end of the year, Paul’s position remained the same. “I’m going to be a jailbird like every other man that I know! And I ain’t doing this stupid map!
A couple of years later, Jacobson had run into a former student from Paul’s class. She immediately asked about Paul. The student told her that Paul had been in and out of trouble, arrested several times, and had dropped out of school. She quickly realized that Paul’s words, whether they were meant to be taken seriously or as a joke, were exactly what he became. “There’s a lesson here,” she told me. “Language is powerful! It influences feelings, confirms thoughts, and eventually, it produces action. Students will become exactly what they think they should be.” She told me.
Mrs.Jacobson learned the hard way, just as many of us do. Paul was crying out for help, and she had missed it because his ‘cry’ was sheltered by his exposed tough shell. The one student who she could not reach fell through the cracks, he became who he continuously said he was going to become, just like her students that were successful, believed they would one day be successful. This story haunts her daily because she never found out what happened to Paul. She never knew if he reached his full potential, or if he remained incarcerated in the prison his own prediction for his life.
“After this moment,” she said, “I learned that teachers have to be very conscious of the message we send to students. I gave up on Paul like so many of his other teachers. I wonder what would have happened if I didn’t give up on him?”
With this lesson learned, I share her story and ask a specific question, and I'll leave you with an impactful statement. How do you address the Pauls in your class? You have the ability to impact each student, they will meet whatever expectations you put in place, whether they are high or low. It is our jobs to mold students and drive them in the right direction. If we don’t we could have a class full of Pauls. Students will always become what they think they should be. Don’t stand by and let them fall through the cracks!