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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Manuel -- a former student -- called me a few nights ago. For two years, I'd been trying to find out what had happened to him; I'd heard only rumors. He left a message, but I didn't recognize his deep man's voice.

I called back and blubbered, "Thank you, thank you, thank you for calling me. You don't understand what you mean to me."

It's hard to explain, readers, but maybe there's a Manuel in your life. Manuel was one of my babies, one of the students in the group of 50 I taught at the ASCEND School, in Oakland, California, for three years. (Read this Edutopia.org article about ASCEND, and watch this Edutopia video about the school.) I met him when he entered the sixth grade, a chubby-cheeked, short, squirmy 11-year-old.

Unlike so many of his peers in my class, he was solidly on grade level in language arts. He enjoyed reading, and did so for pleasure. He had a sharp, analytical mind and thrived in my class. One spring break, he won a contest for reading the most books during the vacation. He was skilled in all academic areas and was a talented artist.

When Reality Steps In

As he finished eighth grade, Manuel begged me to fail him, to retain him in middle school. He was terrified of leaving the safe, respectful bubble we had at ASCEND. "I'm so afraid of what will happen to me in high school," he said in an interview just before graduating. "I'm afraid I'll drop out or just stop reading."

Manuel went to a troubled high school where he became affected by what he called the "real world." I saw him a few times in his first two years of high school. His clothing indicated his gang affiliation; he was disengaged and withdrawn in classes.

One afternoon, I got a message from Manuel: "My mom is making me move to Stockton. Please talk to her. I can't go out there; I'll have trouble there. I can't tell you what it is, but please talk to her." I'd never heard him so frantic.

When I called back, his phone had been disconnected. That was the last time I heard from him.

Rumors circulated among his former classmates that he was a gangbanger, that he had been in "juvie," and that he was under house arrest. I knew where almost all of my other former students were, so I tried all the networks I could think of to get in touch with him, but I couldn't find him. Not knowing where or how he was haunted me.

I tried to explain this to him when he and I talked a few nights ago. "You were my student before I even had a kid, so you were like a son to me," I told him. "You might have been involved with some stuff that wasn't so good, but the person I know is that little boy, that sweet and thoughtful little boy who loved to read and who was terrified to leave our school. I know that little boy is a part of you, and I'll always love him."

His response came from the child inside of him. "Do you remember that certificate you gave me in sixth grade?" he asked. "I have it on my wall. I also have that essay I wrote about my baby brother. Do you remember that?" Of course I remembered it.

Many years before, his baby brother had been born prematurely because of his father's violence. The baby died. In our seventh-grade class, we made an altar for the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. Manuel brought a photo of the baby in a casket. He wrote a moving essay about his anger and sadness, which he shared with our class. We sat as a community, our room lit up by candles, flowers, and papel picado, under the gaze of dozens of family members who had passed away. As Manuel wept, his peers comforted him.

He explained to me that he had another certificate and a sixth-grade report card also hanging on his bedroom wall. I tried to imagine this 18-year-old's walls adorned with these relics from middle school.

He had been in juvenile hall and under house arrest. He'd been gangbanging and dealing drugs. He had dropped out and then enrolled in adult school and received his diploma. But he hadn't read a book in years.

A Long-Awaited Reunion

Manuel came to see me. In spite of his big man body and his self-consciousness, he crumpled down and let me hug him. "I can't help it," I told him. "I'm so happy to see you."

He picked up books in my office that he remembered seeing in my class in middle school. He told me he is trying to stay out of trouble: "I just hang with the family," he said. We talked about what had happened to his peers from ASCEND. "None of us died?" he asked. "That's pretty good." He's lost many of his friends to violence and to prisons.

"Could there have been another outcome for you?" I asked. "What could we have done to keep you away from gangs and all that stuff?" He shook his head and said, "For Latino males, this is how it is. You gotta choose a side."

I mentioned Javier and Saul, who had successfully avoided gangs. I've heard the gotta-choose-a-side argument, but I'm not convinced that there aren't other options. He tried to explain all the factors that led some into gangs. Of all the students I taught in his cohort, the Latino males struggled the most to negotiate the streets.

Manuel was really clear on one belief: His fate would have been different if, after eighth grade, he not had to leave ASCEND -- the one place where he felt safe and cared for and where he thrived academically. "We should have stayed at ASCEND for high school," he explained.

The Job Unfinished

Manuel really wants to go to college. He's been working in construction and hates it. "But I'm afraid," he told me. "I don't even remember how to write an essay."

I offered to take him to a community college to see a counselor. I don't know if he'll go. I don't know if he'll get into trouble again. I do know that I love him and so many of the other students I've had the way I love my own child -- unconditionally. I wish there were more words to describe these feelings that teachers have for their students.

Through Manuel's eyes, I see that I hold a place for him; I am a reminder of who he was in middle school. Yes, he was silly and immature and growing up, but for the most part, he was innocent and academically successful. He knows -- I am pretty sure -- that he can always return to me and be that boy. His phone call, his visit, his expression are what make this job, and my role as a placeholder, absolutely worth it.

I guess I keep returning to the topic of the first entry I wrote, which asks why we teach. I need to return here -- day after day -- to keep me going.

What's keeping you going these days? Which reasons keep you in this profession? Which students have touched your heart?

Read the second part of this entry, where, inspired by readers' responses to these questions, Elena writes more on this subject.

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Dayli's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really loved your story it was touching but also very realistic, teachers should always provide students with support not only while in the classroom but also later you might never know who's life are you changing by just giving a little love. like you to Manuel while I was a middle school student I had a teacher give me hope and courage thought the tough middle school years were many find themselves lost and don't really know what to do like many I was having regular mother daughter issues and without this awesome friend that gave me great advise and care I don't know what I would have done.

really enjoyed your Blog and hope that all teachers could be like you caring and kind.

Lindsey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Elena,
That is a touching story and, I believe, if Manuel read this story, he would be encouraged and touched by how you cared for and loved him. It is nice to know that you touched someone's life. It sounds like you both touched each others' lives. Teaching is hard these days...more demands along with less resources and perhaps less pay. This year, good things have happened.

About one month ago, my 4th grade students have become very eager about reading. Our school participates in the Accelerated Reader program and students earn rewards for reading and performing well on comprehension tests. Even my least motivated students are reading more. I'm not sure what happened, but something within our classroom has changed...for good.

I have seen student motivation rise and it is contageous. As our class is learning about poetry, which at times is hard to love, introducing it to them in a fun way is getting them excited about it.

I am so blessed to be seeing these gains in my classroom. The commonly known adage "Sticking with it" is a concept good teachers live by.

Lisangelyk P. Munoz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mrs. Elena,

I am an inner city dance instructor at a Children's Theatre in Hialeah, FL, where I teach all kinds of dance styles (i.e. ballet, jazz, tap, modern, flamenco, belly dance, etc). It's a government job and it's to keep kids out of drugs, gangs, drinking, pretty much out of the streets. I'd been working there since the age of 18, and I'd watched all of my dancers grow up. I'm 25 years old right now, and seeing my students go from elementary, middle and now to high school is stocking, and more especially with my girl dancers.

Watching my girl students develop and having the boys look at them in a different way, makes me want to protect them even more. I'm always reminding them to take care of themselves, to watch out with the older guys, and to respect themselves.
With the boys it's a little bit harder; because they want to be cool, and in style so the peer pressure is more than girls. I guess in order to reach out to them it's a little bit more difficult.
I guess it's good that I started teaching at an early age, so when I am prepared to have my own kids I will know how to raise them and know what to expect.

I wish you good luck to all your future students.

Best Regards,

Lisangelyk P. Munoz

Katie Maltby's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Elena

I couldn't have read your blog at a better time. I'm currently reading a book by Sonia Nieto entitled What Keeps Teachers Going? Throughout the book she shares stories very similar to yours and I have to say they have all been truely inspiring. I've only been teaching for a few years, so have not yet had the chance to reunite with a past student, but I can only imagine how important and special that must be. The book focuses on the fact that it is all about caring for your students. If they know you care about them and can feel safe around you, the sky is the limit. Every day when I enter my classroom, I try to remember these stories and try to create similar relationships with my own students. Thanks for sharing.

Katie

Christina Mills's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Elena,
Your blog entry was uplifting and inspiring. The question of," what keeps me going?" is the essence of your entry. I have only been in the teaching profession for five years, but in this time, I have experienced such moments of fulfillment. It brings me to the realization that relationships are so important and are the key to unlock the door to becoming a great educator. It is creating a bond that goes beyond the shallow definitions that are often placed on the term "educators". Without establishing a connection with students, teachers truly are not achieving their responsibilities. Establishing relationships with students may not necessarily be a job requirement listed during the hiring process, but I believe it is a necessity. Your entry reinforces the true meaning behind education. We need to not only educate today's youth, but also create a relationship that inspires life-long learners.

Just this year I had a young lady return to my classroom with a very special gift. I had not seen her in the last two years since she graduated from high school. She was an outstanding, gorgeous, and athletic young lady, but her senior year was exceptionally trying. She experienced heartache throughout her last year of athletics that were absolutely demoralizing. I spent most of the year trying to keep her from quitting athletics. I know that this may seem shallow compared to the situation with Manuel, but I really had no idea how much I impacted this young lady. She returned to my room and gave me the most precious gift I ever could imagine, a hand-made quilt. She inscribed a little note thanking me for my support and how much I meant to her. It was unbelievable to imagine that what I thought was so little, meant so much to her.

It is an every day reminder to me that we touch the lives of students without even realizing it. We have more influence than we can ever imagine. This is why I love my job and why I teach. Inspiring stories, such as yours, is what keeps me going. I cannot imagine any other profession.

Thank you so much for your inspirational story.
Christina Mills

Rebecca's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Elena,

What an inspiring story to share! I have to agree with Manuel, high school settings are a lot different than Intermediate School. I currently teach sixth grade math. This year I am a part of a looping team. This means I will keep the students from this year, and teach them the seventh grade curriculum next year. I miss my students each year, but to teach them for two years, it will be even harder to "let them go." I have been teaching for nine years. I still keep in touch with a lot of my former students, including my student teaching class. There is one boy Josh that just touched my heart. He has been my favorite (even though teachers don't have favorites), since I first met him. There is just something about him. Well, he is in the tenth grade now, and I am so worried about him, along with all of my other students. Unfortunately, my district's high schools are overpopulated with gang members. When Josh was in sixth grade, he was liked by everyone, including all of his teachers. He did well in school, and contines to succeed in the high school. One thing that makes me less worried is that Josh plays sports. He wrestles and plays football. Like I do with others, I have confidence that he will make the right choices.

I am currently taking a graduate class. What Keeps Teachers Going by Sonia Nieto is one of the resources we use in my class. This book shares many stories like the one you shared with us. I hope for your students as well as mine that we teach them well enough to respect themselves and others, even it isn't the "cool" thing to do.

Beckie :)

Shonda Williams's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello Elena. That was a very inspirational story. I often times wonder if my students will remember me or even want to. I have been told by many colleagues that I have an excellent rapport with my students, and I agree. I have always let my students know that they can always come to me for anything. I talk to my students and their parents in other situations besides school. I even give out my numbers. A lot of teachers don't because they don't want the aggravation, but it doesn't bother me as much. I hope that oneday I am able to share a positive and inspirational story like yours oneday.

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