My sister was thirty when we were talking about our school days, and a certain teacher came up in conversation. My sister suddenly turned to me and said, “<That teacher> told me I was hopeless.”
The teacher we were talking about was a chemistry teacher at a private school. She was known for being strict and feared. She told students what to do and expected them to immediately do it – and never mind why. My sister on the other hand was very creative and gifted, with a very goofy sense of humor. She was a natural writer and musician. In her entire educational career, no teacher was able to help her connect math with her natural creativity – which is a real shame. She would have been a wonderful inventor, engineer or futurist.
This teacher wasn’t the first who had told her she was hopeless. She was let on to the fact that she just wasn’t as capable as everyone else as early as second grade. When she was in seventh grade, she and a friend on a lark, agreed to just mark the answers on the California Achievement Test (CAT) without reading the questions. The “friend” was savvy enough not to actually do this. My sister on the other hand was placed in Special Education the next year. Her school career had been long and painful – but she had always made light of it. One of our running jokes was that while taking a science test she had labeled one of the organs of the human body the “Hispaniola”.
But on that summer day on the porch, when she was thirty and I was thirty-six, she looked evenly at me with wide blue eyes and I saw the child she had been, and heard the hurt in her voice. In a rush I realized the impact that one statement of exasperation from a teacher had on her. My protective instinct rose up, and I wanted to go find that teacher and share with her – in a very straightforward way – the harm that she had done even beyond failing to help my sister to learn Chemistry. I wanted to throw Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences and a copy of The Indigo Children on her desk and lecture her about differentiating education.
I became a teacher so I could help the hopeless kids: the kids who really had trouble – who suffered through concepts (and sometimes a world) which seemed horribly alien to them. I had a wonderful professor who once said to me that I would always be successful if in my class I angled my lessons to reach the gifted and to the absolutely clueless. As long as I could do that, he said, all students would learn.
There’s a lot of focus on one-shot tests these days – and kids are under far more pressure than is healthy even before they get to know their instructors personally. As teachers, I hope that each day we remember and honor the impact we have on students – particularly our students who think differently: the ones who don’t bring notebooks and pencils to class; the ones who always seem to be looking for a laugh; and the ones who daydream when they should be paying attention. These are unique and precious individuals who could care deeply about our judgement. We should consider the possibility that when tell a child he or she is hopeless, he or she may still be trying to figure out what they did wrong even decades later!