The Impact Teachers Can Make: From Academic Probation to Dean’s List
By Allie Blythe Strickland
Allie Blythe Strickland is a May 2018 graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She majored in communication studies, concentrating on media production and technology, and also received minors in entrepreneurship and social and economic justice. In 2017-18, Strickland served as co-director for Speakers and Performers of TEDxUNC, where she discovered the power of storytelling. In her future career, she seeks to elevate stories that foster expansive ideas and instill empathy. Strickland currently works as a project coordinator for Creative Visions Foundation, a nonprofit organization that produces social impact films and supports creative activists using media to ignite positive change. In September 2018, she will begin a gap year in Paris, France, as an au pair.
“What do you fear?” Two entrepreneurs in residence and professors of the practice, Jed Simmons and Bernard Bell, challenged their college students to answer this question on the last day of their media entrepreneurship class. A common thread in student answers? Disappointment. As for Jed and Bernard? Impact. Teachers across the country are always pressed to figure out how to make their expected and desired impact, while many students feel defined by their grades and standardized testing scores. As of May 2018, I am a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. During my undergraduate career, I trailed on academic probation and soared on the dean’s list. Reflecting on my journey through college has led me to realize the lasting impact a single classroom experience had in leading me to an upward trajectory.
The photo of me on the right was taken on campus, just moments after finishing my first college exam. Despite the poor timing, I underwent ACL and meniscus surgery the week before midterms. I crutched around with a defiant refusal to acknowledge that I was struggling; and in what felt like a moment’s time, my grades slipped out from under me. A few professors expressed concern, but I repeated to myself, “Resilient people do not need help.” Toward the end of the semester, I was released from my knee brace and from any chance of making exceptional grades. As a first-generation college student, truly nothing says “You may not be cut out for this,” like an email that reads: “Your current academic standing is Eligible –On Academic Probation.” Slowly but surely, I began an uphill climb toward exceptional academic standing. It was not until later, and mostly in hindsight, that I can see that the greatest barrier to my success was not my GPA, inherent intelligence, nor work ethic, but my confidence in my ability to achieve.
I met Bernard Bell at a networking event on campus. “What’s your name, and where are you from?” he asked. “I’m Allie, and I am from Wilson, N.C.,” I sheepishly responded. “Ah, Wilson, that’s a tobacco town right?” “Yes it is,” I said, perking up a bit, and shocked that he knew of my hometown. We then discussed our upbringings, both being from different parts of rural North Carolina. By the end of the conversation, he encouraged me to sign up for his class in media entrepreneurship. I left feeling elated; it was the first time I had connected with a professor—something I had seen so many peers do so seemingly effortlessly. The semester immediately following this encounter—in the spring of my junior year—I took his advice and enrolled in the class co-instructed by Bernard and his good friend, Jed Simmons.
On the first day of the course, Jed announced that it is OK not to be the first person raising your hand in class. To reinforce this, he said it is not uncommon for the best answers to come from the quiet observers. His only request to the more reserved (or perhaps simply more reflective) students was for us to email him or Bernard to share our thoughts or stop by their office to connect so they at least would know what was on our minds. A few weeks in, I was emailing my thoughts on the material we were studying so they would know they were making an impact. For them, the number of times a student spoke in class was rather meaningless. Engagement was what they were after, and they upheld this with the simple expectation to communicate in whatever way works for their students.
Around the halfway mark, they had us anonymously write down answers to a series of questions. What do we wish people knew about us? What is something we are proud of? What is something we are scared to tell people? They collected our answers and read them back to the class. The class was silent as we discovered that we all were battling setbacks, had at times felt misunderstood, and had a shared desire for greater understanding. Through this exercise, Jed and Bernard wanted to show us that despite our doubts, we belonged at any table we found ourselves seated at, and further, that while it may be easy to assume the person sitting next to you has it easy, rarely is this the case.
Without efforts to be socially and emotionally connected in the classroom, teachers and students are pitted against each other and quickly lose sight of a shared understanding that we are all teammates in the learning process. Through Jed’s and Bernard’s innovative ways of connecting with each student individually, and with the class as a whole, I came to realize that I am not alone in my struggles and that there is strength in asking for help. Their way of teaching restored my self-value and confidence in my intrinsic capabilities, and opened me up to being more engaged with my peers and instructors. Although the impact of this is not easily measured, I believe it is no coincidence that a renewed sense of belonging culminated in double-semester dean’s lists my senior year.
Teachers, as you power forward into the 2018-19 school year, I challenge you to embrace a classroom of vulnerability. Consider letting your students in on your fears, failures and frustrations, and offering a safe space for them to share theirs. Despite regulations, be relentless in teaching in a way that suits you, and create a space where your students can learn in a way that best suits them. Do this for them, and rest assured, your positive impact will last long beyond the next grading period. Bernard’s famous line among his students tells it best: “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Special thanks to Bernard Bell and Jed Simmons, entrepreneurs-in-residence and professors of the practice at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Tricia Baldes earned a master’s in English from Lehman College and has been a middle level educator since 2001. Her passion for human rights education has led to her writing curriculum and consulting with nonprofit organizations like Creative Visions, Speak Truth to Power and KidsRights. She co-authored the Rock Your World curriculum and currently works with the team as a program coordinator. In addition to presenting at national conferences for NCTE and ACSD, Baldes has led various teacher trainings and programs for students. She teaches eighth-grade English in Westchester County, N.Y.
Jess Burnquist earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Time.com, NPR.org, and various online and print journals. She is a recipient of the Joan Frazier Memorial Award for the Arts at ASU and has been honored with a Sylvan Silver Apple Award. She teaches high school English, creative writing and AP Literature in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area and is the Director of Rock Your World. Her poetry chapbook You May Feel Your Way Past Me was published in 2017 Dancing Girl Press.