Many families join the New School for the strong connections that are nurtured at every level and for the support that they know their children will receive as they grow into young adults. Supporting the whole child is woven into everything we do, but it can appear in many different forms and fashions. As a new teacher over 25 years ago, I was put into a position that required me to try every strategy of connection in the “manual” with a class and I will readily admit that it did not always look pretty.
In my first year as a teacher, I was assigned an English section called 9-3C. I was at a large school in New Hampshire that believed in very specific academic tracking. 9-1A was the top section of 9th graders, and the school often referred to that class as the “honors group.” If you do the math, my 9-3C section was nine levels below that honors group, and sadly, they knew it.
I was too early in my career to understand how tracking could impact students, and whether it was something I even believed in. What I did know was that the reputation for the 9-3C English class was so bad that the group was assigned class space that was not in the English wing of the Academic Center. Actually, it was not even in the Academic Center, rather, the class was taught in the lone room in the basement underneath the dining hall. My sense was that administrators simply did not want to hear my cries of frustration as the group overpowered me.
I had spent most of August studying the 9th grade English curriculum and had carefully plotted the first two weeks of plans for the 9-3C class. The opening writing assignment for the entire 9th grade was to write business letters to companies and request free items that could be used to decorate the students’ dorm rooms. Two of my 9-3C students wrote letters to what I will refer to as “men’s magazines” and it was immediately clear that the curriculum I had been studying needed to be changed and changed quickly. The letters were rewritten.
By the middle of October, I felt like this class of eight students was in a good place. I hesitate to say that we had made any progress learning English, but they all had the right books in class and they were attempting to complete the homework a couple times each week. I simply felt better than earlier in the fall, but then a major challenge developed. A new student arrived. A student who had already graduated from the school, but had been expelled from his high school. He returned to this school in New Hampshire to do his 9th grade year- again. It was clear on the first day he arrived that he was going to be in charge.
I tried every sort of motivational strategy for the class from being a screamer to the “arm around the shoulder guy.” There was never one strategy that seemed to work for all the students, but I think the fact that I kept trying new things lulled them into complacency. In the winter, my role as a hockey coach helped me to gain some credibility, and we started to get things done. I will not bore you with the details of their progress in their heavily modified English experience, but somehow 25 years later I get more Christmas cards, birth announcements, and visits from that group of 9-3C students then any other team or class I have ever worked with. I have shared meals with them when they have visited Boston, friended them on social media, played golf with them, and at an alumni weekend a few years back, we walked the old campus and they showed me all their “hiding spots.” That young man who arrived late to the class even went on to become a writer for a ski magazine in Colorado.
It is so important for all of us to realize that there is never one way to move or support a child. If we all agree that every child learns differently, then we must also agree that supporting a child should come from a variety of different strategies and continue to evolve until there is some growth and success. We see New School students who are not feeling “okay” every period of everyday. It could be poison ivy or it could be frustration with a friend. It could be a challenging assignment or disappointment in a result. Regardless, we all expect that in such a small nurturing program as the New School that we will find ways to connect and grow these children even in the time of a pandemic.
I certainly see teachers supporting student growth in every second of everyday on this campus, but with so much effort put into “the guidance,” mask maintenance, social distancing, COVID testing, and health screening, it can feel like our focus has shifted, but it has not, and it will not in the future. As our mission says, we respect the pace of childhood, and that also means we respect a child’s individual pace. We will support all these incredible students in their growth, even if that means we try every strategy in “the manual” and must simply outlast them into changing, as I tried to do with the 9-3C section in that basement classroom under the dining hall in New Hampshire.
Have a great weekend.