44: The Power of Belief

44: The Power of Belief

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales

The Power of Belief

Keep your dreams alive. Understand to achieve anything requires faith and belief in yourself,
vision, hard work, determination, and dedication.
Remember all things are possible for those who believe.

~Gail Devers, three-time Olympic Gold medalist

Teachers are constantly striving to teach our kids as much knowledge as possible. However, in the meantime, we also have the opportunity to teach them so much more. It has always been my goal, as a teacher, to get kids to believe in themselves and to understand that with hard work and a positive attitude, they can accomplish almost anything. Many times, in order for students to believe in themselves, they first must see their teachers believe in them. This belief can be very powerful, as illustrated by the following e-mail I received from a student.

Mr. Kuhlman:

I ran across your Internet site and I guess I’m just hoping you are the right Mr. Kuhlman!

After thinking about it, I thought you might not answer my original e-mail, if you remembered me. I was a bit of a scoundrel. I was in your Biology, Advanced Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. I had dyed black hair, and I guess I probably seemed a little “Goth” looking. We were the rough crowd. I was a cheerleader for a year but I didn’t take anything seriously then.

I never had a personal conversation with you, but I think everybody knew I was into a lot of bad things. I came from a very poor family, was involved in gang activity, abused a lot of alcohol, and experimented with a lot of drugs. I got pregnant in my senior year of high school, and the superintendent asked me to leave. I ended up graduating as a home school student and I eventually married the child’s father. We have three children now.

I needed to tell you that even though we never really talked, or were friends in anyway besides professional cordialities, you had a big influence on me. You expected a lot from me. No one else did. I wasn’t a dumb kid, but I knew everyone thought I was a throw away. In your class, it didn’t matter who I was because you treated me like everyone else. I didn’t do homework for other classes, but I did the homework you assigned—because it was expected and I had been bitten by the science bug.

I spent several years after high school putting myself back together. I learned how to be responsible, confident, and respect authority. I had to learn it all the hard way! I did things like deal blackjack, and sew blankets and placemats, housekeeping, etc.

One thing I always remembered was a time when you were asking us what we wanted to do when we “grew up.” When my turn came, I said I wanted to be a physicist. Everyone laughed, even me. But you didn’t. You said I could be a physicist if I wanted and you were serious. It stayed with me—even when I was working to just keep my head above water.

I ended up earning a two year degree at a Community College. The science instructors there saw my interest in the sciences, and I did a lot of science-related projects. Now I am a senior at the university majoring in Biology, with a minor in Chemistry, and secondary education licensure requirements. I love teaching and I love science, and you started the fire under me to accomplish all of this. Sure, I’m not a physicist, although I’ve taken several Physics courses—but maybe one of my students will be. I just wanted you to know that you have made a big difference in my life by doing what you do best. Because of what you have done for me, my students will have the opportunity to become scientists and teachers, because of my own dedication to my work in education.

Even though this student never became a famous physicist, in that one instant she learned an adult believed she could be. That one minute exchange became a tipping point for this student. She later commented, “I believed you because you had a strong value system, never called in sick, were always prepared, and had strict classroom standards. You had the same high expectations for everyone. For this reason, when you said something, I took it to heart. If you saw something in me, I thought, it must be real.” I received that e-mail several years ago, so this story would not be complete without an update.

Wow, I can’t believe how fast time flies, I didn’t realize it had been that long since I sent that e-mail to you. As a student teacher, I taught Science to high school students on the Spirit Lake Nation Reservation. The majority of my students there were living the life I had growing up: living in poverty, coming from broken homes and just trying to make it day to day, often getting in a lot of trouble along the way. I went on to earn a Masters Degree in Biology with an Educational Leadership cognate from the University of North Dakota. After graduation, I was hired as the Science Director at the Sisseton Wahpeton College. What I have found, even years later, is that your enthusiasm for science and learning was contagious, and you had passed it on to me. In turn, I have passed it on to my students as well.

Like you, I set high expectations for my students and demanded more of them, while encouraging them to set goals and dream big. A number of my former students have gone on to college and earned Bachelor’s Degrees, against all odds. In fact, one student got a hold of me a month ago to let me know that she’s been accepted to Law School. Like me, she started with nothing and had to fight her way through, every step of the way. While she credits me for her good work, I credit you.

My science education has really opened doors for me. As someone who feels the strong need to make a difference, and seeing the lack of American Indians within that field, I decided to pursue a law degree. In December 2008, I earned a Juris Doctorate Degree from the UND School of Law. In 2009, I was hired as an attorney for my tribe. Currently I am writing the Environmental Code for my tribe, as one has not yet been established. This Code will help my tribe gain important recognition under the EPA and guide us in regulating and managing our natural resources more effectively. Once again, thanks for thinking of me.

This story illustrates how the greatest strength of a teacher may be the ability to raise the expectations of their students and to convey a personal belief that with hard work, all students can succeed in life. The power of belief in oneself is a truly remarkable gift that should be given to all children. As teachers, we have the ability, and the responsibility, to give this gift to our students!

~Paul Kuhlman
2009 South Dakota State Teacher of the Year
Math, Science teacher, grades 7, 9-12

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