How Could I Miss, I’m a Teacher!

How Could I Miss, I’m a Teacher!

From A 4th Course of Chicken Soup for the Soul

How Could I Miss, I’m a Teacher!

You cannot teach people anything. You can only help them discover it within themselves.

Galileo

In the early 1960s in New York City, I worked with a group of eighth- and ninth-grade students who were only reading at the second- to third-grade level. I found it difficult not to experience despair, working with them, trying to tutor kids who had basically given up on school. Their attendance was spotty at best. I believe many of them came to school simply because this is where most of their friends were that day, rather than because they thought they might learn something.

Attitudinally, they were a disaster. Anger, cynicism, sarcasm and the expectation of being failed, ridiculed or put down was the tenor and content of their talk. I tried to tutor them in small groups and one-on-one, and I must confess the results were not encouraging with most. Oh, there were a few who seemed to respond more positively on an occasional basis, but it was impossible to tell when that marginally positive attitude might disappear, to be replaced by sullenness or unaccountable flashes of anger.

One of my other problems was the fact that, at the time, almost no age-appropriate remedial reading materials were available for junior high school students at such a low level. They wanted to read about relationships, dating, sports and cars, not materials like “Run, Spot, run! See the ball. It is bouncing.” The kids regarded the materials I had as too babyish and beneath them. Unfortunately, more interesting materials were way too difficult in reading level for them to handle without much frustration. Several of them complained continuously about the reading material. Jose, a tall, lanky boy with a pronounced accent, captured the essence when he said, “Hey, man, this stuff is boring. And it’s dumb, too! Why do we got to read this junk, man?”

A glimmer of an idea crept into my mind. I sought help from my department chairman on how to write a proposal for funding a little tutoring project. We didn’t get a huge sum of money, but it was enough for a pilot program for the last six months of the school year. It was simple and it worked.

I “hired” my students as reading tutors. I told them that the nearby elementary school had students in the first, second and third grades who needed help in reading. I had some money that I could pay to anyone who’d help me work with these children. My students asked whether this would take place during or after school. “Oh, during school. In fact, it will be instead of our class period together. We’ll just walk over there each day and work with the kids there.

“You’ve got to know, that if you don’t show up, you don’t get paid. And you also have to understand that it would be very disappointing to a young child if you were his or her tutor and you didn’t show up or if you didn’t work caringly with that child. You’ll have a big responsibility!”

All but one of my 11 students jumped at the chance to be a part of this program. The lone holdout changed his mind within one week as he heard from the other students how much they were enjoying working with these young kids.

The elementary kids were grateful for the help but even more so for some attention from these older kids from their own neighborhood. Clearly you could see a version of hero worship in their eyes. Each of my students was assigned two or three younger children to work with. And they worked, reading to them and having them read aloud as well.

My goal was to find away to legitimize eighth and ninth-graders reading such young material. I thought that, if I could get them to read that material and read regularly, they would surely improve. As it turned out, I was right. At the end of that year, testing showed almost all of them had improved one, two or even three grade levels in reading!

But the most spectacular changes were in my students’ attitudes and behavior. I hadn’t expected that they would start to dress better, with more care and more neatness. Nor had I expected that the number of fights would decrease while their attendance dramatically increased.

One morning, as I was entering school from the parking area, I saw Jose walking toward the door. He looked ill. “What’s the matter, Jose?” I said, “You look like you might have a fever.” This was a student whose attendance had been the second worst in the group.

“Oh, I guess I’m feeling kind of sick, Mr. McCarty,” he replied.

“So why are you here today? Why didn’t you stay home?” I asked.

His answer floored me. “Oh, man, I couldn’t miss today, I’m a teacher! My students would miss me, wouldn’t they?” He grinned and went in the building.

Hanoch McCarty

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