Saturday, April 18, 2009


I watched a video on YouTube today - I've watched it five times and am still hitting replay - the URL is -- it is the most inspiring performance I've ever heard. I just wish I could download the audio to my iPod.

Here is this dowdy, older, graying woman - unemployed 47, and never been kissed -- everyone was judging her by her appearance, expecting little. She began to sing and the audience [and the judges] were on their feet, applauding. How unbelievable that someone so unassuming could take that song - I Dreamed a Dream - and knock everybody's socks off!

It makes me think of all the students that are judged unfairly because they are unkept, unwashed and/or untutored. We overlook their needs and we overlook them, sitting in our classes among smartly dressed, smartly turned out kids who have had all the advantages. So often all it would take is a kind word, a little positive attention. What is it about human beings that makes us overlook what people have inside them and focus only on the surface?

I remember a student I taught 25 years ago. She was a student in what was then [and remains] perhaps the worst class I've ever had to teach - mostly kids from the "wrong side of the tracks" - many could barely read, and they had been passed on from grade to grade up through the years with little expected from them, until they landed in my 9th grade "basic physical science" class. I kept Chris after school during the first week of class because she had not done her homework. Immediately, she had a hundred reasons including that she had 13 sibblings that she had to take care of when she got home from school - getting supper for them, getting them ready for bed [which they all shared] - it was intolerable that children should live in those conditions, and unimaginable that a 14 year old would have those responsibilities. But I made her stay until her bus came - that day and every day after. She stayed in my room instead of going to her "bus room" and did her homework, not only mine but for all her classes.

Fast forward five or six years. One day I got a letter with a return address that said "from the last person on earth you ever thought you'd hear from." In the enclosed letter, Chris apologized for the class - she knew they had really tried my patience -- but she also said thanks; I was the first teacher who had ever made her do her homework, the first teacher who believed she could do her homework. Because I believed in her, she said, she could believe in herself. She went on to say that she had gotten involved in the Salvation Army and had continued to do her homework and study - and that she was at Belmont Abbey College on a Salvation Army scholarship, studying to be a psychologist. Had I not paid attention to her, and made her do her homework, she might well have simply slipped through the cracks as so many students do.

And I wonder how many other students didn't make my radar - that I didn't do what was needed for them. What happened to them?

In spite of the regrets for students I perhaps did not reach, I have to say - this is the paycheck, folks - one letter in 40 years of teaching. But it is worth it.


Chuck Hall said...

I found myself being tempted to pay more attention to the better groomed students. I think that is the temptation that we all have to face as leaders. It's human nature. Why is the item in the beat up package the last on to sell even though the item is clearly not damaged. We are just going to throw the plastic and paper backing away. So why is it important? Some of my smartest students are the ones that are less groomed than the others. I think that teachers have to make the extra effort not to mentally discriminate against students. It is a constant struggle. I think it is one worth fighting though because sooner or later a teacher's thoughts will turn to actions. Lets hope that those thoughts remain kosher and diligent towards developing all students, because life has a funny way of humbling the proud. Funny to onlookers more than the humbled.
On a personal note, I was a troubled, ungroomed middle school student that was treated unfairly so I do have a soft spot for the underdog. Like the girl in your story, I also re-visited my middle school principal, apologized for my actions, and thanked him for being understanding.

wpatterson said...

That is such a touching story. I tend to have a bleeding heart and want to give everyone second, third and twentieth chances. It has burned me in student teaching, but I also think, or at least I hope, that I have impacted someone. My heart goes out to my students, both the needy and spoiled.

Julie Lance said...

My dad sent the youtube link of that lady last week - it brought tears to my eyes! It was a touching moment that made me aware of just how much we judge others by their appearance. I try not to do this with my students, but I do struggle with this at times. If someone looks comfortable to us, then I guess we feel more comfortable with them. It's not fair, but it seems to be human nature.

I hope that I can have a strong impact on my students, even if I never know about it. It reminds me of the quote: "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops."

jvaughn said...

Maybe it was just the school that I student taught at, but we had many cases similar to yours, and some even worse, not by the number of siblings to look after, but just a far worse scenario at home. Some of the worst behaved students quickly became my favorites and were sort of a project for me. I would ask them about not only my class, but other classes. I even tutored one young man a few times after school or during our academic enrichment time on his math work. He came from a background where his mother was a single mom of 5 kids, and worked two jobs just to get by. They lived in the bad part of town, and this young man was the oldest of all the children; he too was responsible for making dinner, and putting his siblings to bed. He also had to be the one to watch out for his little brothers getting recruited by the gang, he sometimes would have to fight to keep them away from his family. He often slept in class, due to his situation at home, I would print out copies of the powerpoints for him so that he could stay with the rest of the class. I hope that one day we will see each other down the road, and he becomes successful in whatever he chooses to do.

Melanie Callahan said...

Our instructional coach played Susan Boyle's performance at our morning assembly (they have it every day before homeroom). She said this is proof that you should not judge people by their appearance and give everyone a chance. I thought it was the perfect way to start the day and hoped it made a difference for some of the students watching. It was amazing- especially to see Simon Cowell speechless. When does that happen? But definitely I feel like I expect the students with a nice appearance to be smart and then I am very surprised. So I need to stop doing exactly what the instructional coach said and I will be more effective! I think the student coming back is awesome, great job- and I hope that happens to me one day!

Curtis W. Smith said...

I received a letter this week from one of my students thanking me for being her teacher this year and for "singing" (she meant signing) her BellWork every day. This particular student falls into the same descriptive category as Susan Boyle, only with a much younger age. She tries and tries and tries, but never gets noticed. My optimistic side tells me she will get noticed someday.

It is easy for us to get caught up in how things on the outside look; however, the real challenge is for teachers is to look to the inside of each individual no matter what "package" they are wearing when they come into our classrooms. This video of Susan Boyle's performance is a reminder to us all that we can't always immediately see everything an individual has to offer society.