A different kind of vertical alignment

Taken 9/7/2017

Nothing about this photo seems remarkable. It’s a typical scene at a Friday night football game.

But for me, it captures something I haven’t been able to stop thinking about all school year: a boy who finally found somewhere to belong, a place that will push him to become the person he has always been capable of becoming.

Teachers don’t have favorites. At least not in the way that the world-at-large uses the word. That kind of favorite results in allowing certain kids to get away with things they shouldn’t get away with, directs the best instruction and all of the desirable attention toward them. Teacher favorites don’t come in that form.

We’re told, practically from day 1 of teacher education, about the importance of building relationships with students. There are countless articles, and books, and videos on the subject. Like this article from the Association for Middle Level Educators, or the well-known Ted Talk from Rita Pierson, during which she boldly claims “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” Every educator everywhere knows the impact that building relationships with every student in our classroom can have on the learning that takes place there.

But there’s always that handful of kids each year. The ones you make strong connections with. The ones you see something in that other people don’t seem to notice. It’s not about favorites so much as its about one person not being able to give themselves to every student. So we take responsibility for a handful that we feel we truly understand. In my district we often refer to this as a “back pocket kid”, students that you watch a little bit more closely. (I don’t believe this terminology is unique to our district but I can’t seem to find any other sources referencing this).

One of the students in the picture above was that for me. From the second he came into my classroom, joining about a month into school, there was something about him that just clicked. I could see beyond his awkward and quiet 11-year-old self. Other teachers told me he wouldn’t do work for them, that he was naughty, that he got in trouble a lot, and I just wasn’t seeing any of that. I saw a kid that would do anything I asked of him once he knew I cared about him.

And it wasn’t just me. It takes a village, as the saying goes. In 7th grade he made connections with another teacher. In 8th, yet another.

When it came time for him to go to the high school, I worried. There was no way to keep an eye on him. His original passions for football and baseball seemed to have faded and the only time I saw him the entire year, he was wandering around the high school building just before school got out, very clearly not in the class he was meant to be in.

I had no part in his decision to join the co-ed cheer team. But his Instagram post from the first football game, captioned “best decision I ever made” was enough to make me teary. He has found a direction. A team that makes him feel valuable, that capitalizes on his talents, that gives him a purpose. It is the change in his life I’ve been hoping for since he was the goofy, quiet kid that didn’t seem to fit in my 6th grade classroom, wondering if I had any more books about football.

He is the perfect example of the kind of vertical alignment we strive for in academics, a perfect sequence of adults in a kid’s corner until something finally works. It is what we want for every student. When it happens, it’s nothing short of magic.

I cannot wait to see what he’s going to do next.



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