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What Student Impacted You Most as a Young Teacher? (Opinion)

I was 22 when I began teaching. My first position was teaching 2nd grade at Orting Elementary School in Washington state. I clearly remember the pressure I felt to have all students make significant progress during their year with me. Even in the mid-1980s, Orting had moved to standards-based practices. The principal asked us to use our classroom assessments to evaluate each child on grade-level student-learning objectives for reading, writing, and mathematics before filling out their report cards. At Orting, the report cards contained both checklists and narrative sections and were turned into the principal for his review prior to distributing them to families.

Jimmy had strawberry blond hair and blue eyes. He was on the shorter side of students in our classroom and was stout for an 8-year-old. He had a grin (not smile) that could light up a room.

In drafting my first set of report cards, it became clear that Jimmy wasn’t meeting standards. I tried a variety of strategies, but often, Jimmy would just sit. If I nudged too much, I would begin to see his eyes well up. , Even though I was very nervous, I called Jimmy’s dad to see if he could meet. He said his hours were long and could not meet. I offered to come to his home, and after a bit of back and forth, he agreed to meet at 7:30 one evening.

At the time, I didn’t question doing this and I didn’t tell the principal or other staff this is what I had arranged. Note: This is not good practice. It was a cold, dark, rainy evening in the Pacific Northwest when I drove toward their home, which was significantly off the main road. After driving for what felt like several miles, I arrived at a small bubble trailer. Before I was able to get out of my car, Jimmy was at my window with his grin.

He invited me up the two steps of the trailer, and together, we walked through the small door. His dad’s first words were, “I don’t know who you are, Mr. Nelson, but Jimmy here talks about you all the time. He thinks you are something special, and I am grateful. It’s like he has come out of his shell for the past two months.”

At this moment, tears were welling in my eyes. I had come to “tell” in a tough manner that Jimmy was behind and we needed to do something. Instead, I chose to listen and say how much I enjoyed having Jimmy in my class and how much I wanted to support him with his learning but we had some catching up to do. Even though Jimmy’s father clearly told me he could not teach Jimmy, I asked for his help, and he agreed to support me.

Jimmy made progress and became a reader during our year together. I quickly realized that moment wasn’t entirely about Jimmy. It was a life lesson for me, and as I look back, I would consider it one of my greatest learning experiences as an educator. Among the lessons I learned were:

  • Jimmy’s home environment was very different from the one in which I was raised. I needed to always have empathy for the many things I might not know about students (and staff).
  • Jimmy’s father was trying to be the best parent he could be. I needed to always believe parents had positive intent.
  • Jimmy’s father actually wanted me to hear their story. I needed to listen.
  • Jimmy’s father never came to our classroom for a meeting even though we met in person many times during that school year. I needed to go to him.
  • Jimmy’s father wanted to know I cared about his son. I needed to demonstrate love, kindness, and compassion.

The events of that one evening have remained with me 39 years later even after my title shifted from teacher to leader.

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