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Virginia Journal of Education

One Student At a Time

Virginia's Teacher of the Year urges educators not to stand by while children become statistics.

by Stephanie A. Doyle

In Virginia, a child is born into poverty every 36 minutes, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, which also notes that a child is abused or neglected every hour in our state.

In addition to the untold psychological scars a young person carries as the result of a traumatic childhood, society gets hit in the pocketbook, too: The dropouts of the class of 2008 will cost the commonwealth nearly $7.2 billion in lost lifetime earnings and almost $400 million in additional health care costs, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education.

These are had facts to swallow. Never before have we Virginia educators been faced with such sobering statistics. If we don’t pay attention to such information, we risk not addressing the needs of children. If we do pay attention to statistics such as these, we risk dragging ourselves deep into the cellar of despair. Somehow, we must find the fulcrum so we can strike a balance.

I teach in an urban school district that is paying attention not only to those statistics, but also to the fact that a high school diploma represents our success as educators. My personal reaction is that I have a choice. I can stand by while children become statistics, or I can just dig in and take it one child at a time.

Challenge #1: Mia
As a beginning teacher, I faced a lot of challenges, but the one that grabbed most of my time and attention was about 40 inches tall with her head down, chin against her chest, looking out at the world from the tops of her eyes with a scowl on her face and fists balled up. Mia was ready to take on any and all comers. To beat all, she was repeating third grade.

The other children cut a wide swath around her—out of fear. I quickly learned that one child had the power to disrupt and destroy my classroom, and worse, she had the power to derail my career even before it got started. I really wanted to know what made her tick, so I asked around and heard some incredible stories about the “little tornado” that left destruction in her wake. About the only positive information came from the reading specialist, who insisted she could learn.

I now had an idea. I contacted her father and proposed keeping his daughter after school for tutoring. To say he was disillusioned and fed up with the school system was an understatement. A review of her cumulative file pretty much explained his attitude; he consented, but gave me a deadline of November to make any progress with Mia.

The first day I kept her, we talked about how she felt about school. Mia had had very negative experiences in school and it colored her outlook on almost everything else in her life. When I drew her out about things she enjoyed, I got somewhere. She liked to shop and she loved Dairy Queen Blizzards.

Now that I had a carrot, it was time to set goals. I’m not ashamed to admit I used good, old-fashioned bribery, but I looked at it as an investment. My plan went beyond academics because this child had the social skills of a street thug. Among the long list of goals were to improve her common courtesy, table manners, and ability to respond respectfully in unfamiliar situations.

Initially, I absolutely had to negotiate the bumpy highway of her behavior because it was a huge barrier to academic success. No goal ever ended. Rather, I kept tacking on a succession of steps that would lead Mia to becoming a cooperative member of my class.

As she mastered each incremental goal, we celebrated at Dairy Queen. Sometimes it went well. Sometimes I cried myself to sleep. But I refused to give up on her—or on myself. By November, I’d built a firm foundation with Mia and our relationship began to flourish. Mia’s father saw an unbelievable change in his child.

As a first-year teacher, living on my own and putting in long hours, cooking was not an option. At least twice a week I would eat at K&W Cafeteria, where I often struck up a conversation with Ms. Bea, who served the side dishes. She called me “Sugar” and asked about my day as she dished my mashed potatoes. One frustrating day, I told her about Mia, and how she didn’t value school, disrupted class, and hated everything and everybody. Ms. Bea, a wise woman, advised me to bring Mia in to see her during the dinner rush.

We arrived at K&W the next evening and near the end of the serving line, we encountered Ms. Bea, who looked at Mia, and said, “Help you?”

Mia spat out her order. Ms. Bea said, “No, I heard about you. I heard a lot about you. Do you want to be me one day?”

Mia was stunned. “Uh, no.”

“Then you need to start doing in school what you’re supposed to do because people like me never had that chance. So don’t waste it.” With that, she served up Mia’s vegetables and I gave Ms. Bea a secret wink. It was the first time that I ever saw Mia speechless.

Our dinner conversation went well beyond manners that night. I never wanted her to forget the wisdom Ms. Bea had given her, but Mia wasn’t the only one that learned something that night. I learned the truth behind the African proverb, It takes a village to raise a child. From then on, whenever Mia needed a boost, we had a code term: “Ms. Bea.”

The end of third grade was remarkable for two things. I had survived both my rookie year and Mia. Furthermore, she had passed two of her Standards of Learning tests with flying colors and she was close to reading on grade level. I assisted in selecting her fourth grade teacher and we had an agreement for Mia to continue being mentored.

Mia’s eye-rolling had continued unabated and her frustrated teacher soon came to see me. One afternoon during my planning time, I wandered in with a handheld mirror. Vanity prevented Mia from wearing glasses, so her seat was near the chalkboard. I knelt down beside her and whispered, “Your teacher tells me you’re rolling your eyes and making faces when she’s talking.”

Mia cocked her head and looked at me. I said, “Do you know how ugly that makes you look?”

Her eyes widened in disbelief. I held up the mirror and told her to make the faces again. When she did, I commented again about how silly it made her look. I then taped the mirror on the chalkboard tray where she could see herself as a reminder.

By fifth grade, Mia had it together academically and our time together was monitoring and maintaining progress while attending hockey games, eating out and shopping. Her social skills had improved dramatically and her ability to deal with people she did not like was becoming more consistent. And that was when the big change occurred.

Not only would Mia be moving to middle school, but so was I. Both of us would face new challenges and I knew that dealing with new kids from four other schools was going to test Mia’s patience. Would she maintain the determination to continue her academic growth or would her anger kick in and cause her to fall in with a crowd that would allow her to follow the path of least resistance?

Once again, I tinkered with her schedule and aligned her with teachers who were willing to reinforce the positive growth. She transitioned extremely well and I felt confident that seventh grade would be another success story.

Challenge #2: Latisha
Mia’s family moved before the next school year, but that didn’t mean I suddenly had a lot of free time on my hands. On the contrary, I had a very mature sixth grade girl named Latisha, with a history of poor attendance and anger issues that stemmed from her home life. I built a positive relationship with her but in seventh grade, when Latisha’s family moved into public housing, she became involved with a gang. I had a very hasty education on gang behavior. Her mother, pastor, a local ministry for youth, and I began a plan of action that included me picking her up and taking her home from school every day. Even with all the intervention, it wasn’t until one of the gang members was killed a block away from Latisha’s home that the turnaround took place.

As I worked with Latisha, I experienced my own “aha” moment. When I was 12, a personal crisis resulted in me being matched with a mentor from Big Brothers and Big Sisters. I realized that what I had done with Mia, and now with Latisha, mirrored what my Big Sister, Karen, had done with me. Instinctively, I had staged quality time that yielded the same kind of relationship that had saved me 20 years earlier. As I facilitated personal growth with each girl, I knew I was onto something significant as an educator and that I owed it all to Karen and the kind of relationship she had built with an angry, miserable, and lost Stephanie.

As authors E.E. Werner and R.S. Smith say, in their book Overcoming the Odds: High Risk Children from Birth to Adulthood‎, “A strong relationship with a caring adult enables at-risk youth to make life-altering changes.”
GROW Is Born
While I was chauffeuring Latisha, I had added a pair of sixth grade girls, both named Sabrina. Sabrina H. was an emotionally drained, angry girl with an intelligence level that was scary. Sabrina C. was an angry, mouthy and aggressive child with SOL scores in the Advanced Proficiency range. While I believe that it’s important to build relationships with my students, I also believe that it’s equally important to help them do that with their peers. Latisha and the Sabrinas are a support system for one another. They don’t mince words and their love for their sisters is deep with understanding. These are the GROW girls.

GROW (Girls Rising Onto Womanhood) was born in the back of my minivan as I watched girls growing into young women through my rearview mirror. I decided the time had come to create a name and to formalize what I had been doing informally. There were things that I wanted to do that would require fundraising, and by this time my subversive mentoring program had caught the attention of the superintendent.

Girls Rising Onto Womanhood celebrated SOL successes with a four-day trip to Washington D.C. to see historical sites. What also happened was the realization of what the GROW girls could become as they eyeballed well-dressed young career women on the Metro, and the interactions that they enjoyed with the young women who took them through the Supreme Court and the Capitol. You could see the wheels turning. It is opportunities and shared experiences that will sustain them just as they did me in my own circumstances. By building these relationships, their lives now have hope and a glimpse of what lies beyond their neighborhoods.

Dr. Rita Bishop, our superintendant, has facilitated my being able to continue mentoring the girls through high school. She is also supportive of expanding the GROW concept to other middle schools.

When Mia’s family moved, I lost touch with her until a chance encounter with a high school teacher who’d heard all about me from Mia. The lessons learned had served Mia well. She’ll be serving as a co-op in her senior year, and is on track to enter nursing school after graduation. I’m thinking we need to celebrate where it began—with green beans and mashed potatoes and Ms. Bea.

This past year, Latisha passed all of her ninth grade SOL tests with flying colors. She is moving out of state, but not out of texting range. I will continue to mentor Latisha from afar, working with her new high school counselor to keep tabs on her progress. Monthly, I plan to make the three hour trip to visit.

The Sabrinas enter high school this fall, continuing their advanced classes, and bolstering each other in their academic goals. They are now the eldest of my mission and will now become mentors for new members of GROW.

This summer the sisterhood welcomed a new addition to the group and she really looks up to the others. She sees their academic successes and can’t wait to make her own mark. The girls are sharing their friendship, hopes for success, and wisdom—all things they value.

The legacy of my Big Sister keeps getting paid forward. Each girl is one less negative statistic and one more positive statistic to support the notion that economic viability for women and girls is best achieved through education.

Each of us has six hours with our students each day. In six hours, we can show a child that he or she is loved, appreciated, safe, intelligent and wanted. In those six hours, we also have the opportunity to change a child’s perception of him or herself as well as their perception of adults. In essence, in that time we can change the life of a child. Imagine each teacher in the commonwealth building one relationship with a child in need. Imagine the dire statistics melting away, one child at a time.

Doyle, a member of the Roanoke Education Association, teaches history at Breckinridge Middle School. She is Virginia’s 2009 Teacher of the Year.



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