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January 3, 2017

Give Students a Restart

As a teacher, my new year is really in September, and I always treat it that way, with resolutions to go along with my school supplies. I think most teachers are like that, and students too. However, it is important to give students a “hard reset,” kind of like when you call the IT person because your computer is malfunctioning. As we approach the “second half” of the year with students—the longer half, by the way—let me be your IT person with an obvious answer you just need to hear to try it out: Give students a restart!

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As a teacher, my new year is really in September, and I always treat it that way, with resolutions to go along with my school supplies. I think most teachers are like that, and students too. However, it is important to give students a “hard reset,” kind of like when you call the IT person because your computer is malfunctioning. The IT person says, “Did you try turning it off and turning it back on again?” I, of course, need an IT person to say that to me because I’m too scared to do it on my own. I’m not sure what I think I’ll do wrong, but I’m not taking any chances. As we approach the “second half” of the year with students—the longer half, by the way—let me be your IT person with an obvious answer you just need to hear to try it out: Give students a restart!

Let’s talk about Jane.

Jane is not real. She’s an amalgamation of many students I’ve had over nearly 20 years of teaching. Jane doesn’t have a learning disability. She wears clean clothes, but often they are not for the right season. Jane wears too much makeup. She is not invited to birthday parties, but she is always the life of the party when parents aren’t around. Jane never speaks about her life outside of school. She is early, for breakfast. She sticks around after school, even though she spends her day acting like it is the last place she wants to be. People who have never taught her know her name from seeing it on detention lists, hearing about fights in the cafeteria, or because they recognize the infamous last name.

Let’s pretend Jane is in your class. She’s not an easy child to deal with, by any means. She skips class. She’s rude. She commits the formidable sin of rolling her eyes at you. You had tried every strategy you knew by October, met with everyone who’d show up in November, leaving everyone with an impossible December when nothing seemed to work. Jane, of course, has her reasons for her behaviors. You’ve identified some serious gaps in her understanding, and you know she has a complicated-in-a-bad-way home life.

But, occasionally, a little ray of sunshine springs from her; it is fleeting, and easy to miss. Once, when you were teaching poetry, she raised her hand to read something she had written. You almost didn’t want to call on her because you thought she was going to mock the assignment or you. But you took the chance, and she said something beautiful. And then it was gone. Sometimes you’ll see this light and wonder who she really is. Most of the time though, her surly exterior is good at masking the little girl inside. By now, I’m sure you know where this story is going.

Flash forward six months to the first day of summer school. I have taught summer school, been an assistant director, and even the director. No matter what my role is, I always ask one question, and the answer is always the same:

Me: Why are you here?

Student: My teachers hated me.

The sad part is that occasionally this is true. Most of the time though, it isn’t true in reality, but it is true for the student who is saying it. As educators, we must help break the cycle that develops when a child is stuck in a system that isn’t working for her. Until we give her a chance to change how she sees it, we aren’t going to get anywhere. Maybe you are thinking, “What about accountability? What about real life?” As for me, I’ll take my chances that if I give students more chances than they deserve, then one of those chances is going to lead to change. If I’m wrong, I’d rather err on the side of the child, not generational failure.

I’m going to throw a religious word in here, but I don’t know any other word that captures it: “grace”—forgiveness and acceptance when it isn’t deserved. We need to give a restart when it isn’t deserved, earned, or even wanted. Pull out all the stops: Smile like you did during the first week of school; help students with routines like they’ve never done them before; call parents with positive updates; celebrate small victories; and channel your own inner September teacher, the one who has hope, the one who has made her own resolutions because she knows there’s room for growth.

The reason it is so important that we allow this restart is because without it, students are never able to change relationships and learn from mistakes. They aren’t ever really given a restart, even in the next September, because they carry years of failures with them, years of believing that teachers hate them, and the students believe too deeply that there is nothing they can do about it. If the system is rigged, as they see it, why bother? This is how we get jaded 13-year-olds, and we can change that.

Allow the Janes of your class into your heart. That sounds clichéd, but I’m unapologetic about this. I know from nearly 20 years of experience that when the Janes get the best of me, I shut them out. Why? Because, just like Jane, I start to feel that I’ve failed, and all my efforts are never going to work, so why let her in to take up space in my heart and mind? But, because I’m a grownup and have learned resilience, and because there are a multitude of other students who have loved me, I’m able to set my feelings aside and decide to give her another chance.

Jane doesn’t have those tools—resilience, a loving support system and experience. We can scaffold for her though, and help her build upon her mistakes and learn from them, allowing her restorative justice instead of a record on repeat. Here are three resources you can use to start the new year (in either September or January).

Conference Form: This form is different from most I’ve seen because it focuses on strengths and weaknesses; it also provides concrete ideas that can help students improve. I especially like this part because most of the suggestions aren’t related to academics, but instead impact academics. For example, the list includes getting more sleep. When families or students feels they have no ability to change things, small and measurable steps like this are useful and easy to check in on.

Credo Assignment: This is a writing piece I will be doing with my students in January to restart the year. It is featured in my upcoming book Social Emotional Learning in the Flexible ELA Classroom, in the chapter, “Responsible Decision Making.” One of the most important things we can do for students is to help them develop personal ethics. This writing assignment will allow students to articulate their beliefs and share them with the class, further building community. By doing this assignment to restart the year, we are reminded once again that we are a community of learners shaped by each other.

One-Word Assignment: I’ve done this activity to start the school year, and I’ve also done it in January. Both times were successful. This is simply another way that we show students we are interested in them and we want to help them achieve their goals. This would work well for Jane because it would allow her to set a goal without the focus being just on her. This is one of my favorite activities to get to know students.

These activities are ways to help you reconnect with your students. We are all human, and it may have been a rocky start for some of us as well. Allow yourself the same grace as you do your students. Make 2017 an awesome year by extending your students the opportunity to “make it right” with a restart.

Amber Chandler

Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified middle school ELA teacher in Hamburg, New York with a Master’s Degree in Literature, as well as a School Building Leader certification.

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