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September 1, 2013
Vol. 71
No. 1

Tell Me About … / A Student Whose Resilience Impressed You

Overcoming Tragedy

There was one student for whom I always had a soft spot because he seemed like someone who could break easily. I had him in my classes for four years, and he managed to graduate high school with decent grades. Six months later, I arrived early at my classroom one morning and found him waiting for me. He'd been walking all night and ended up there. Just a few hours previously, he'd heard his mom and dad arguing, heard his dad slam a door, and then heard a bang. He'd rushed into the room and found his father, who had just ended his own life.
I lost track of the boy for the next several years, and I worried about what had become of him and how the tragedy had affected his life. About a year ago, he tracked me down through Facebook. He's done well in the military, graduated summa cum laude in a difficult medical field, and currently has a year left in his doctoral program. He has grown into a strong, funny, happy man with great prospects. I was wrong—he didn't break easily. His resilience has made me proud to have known him.
—Dale Garrard, teacher, Meridian School District, Meridian, Idaho

A Caring Listener

As an assistant principal in a suburban school with more than 70 percent of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, I saw a lot of resilience in students. One student stands out in my memory. She was living with her sister after the loss of her parents. She could have moved to live with an aunt, but she wanted to finish her senior year at her current school. She often experienced tensions at home. Each morning while I was on hall duty, I would greet her and ask how she was doing. Monday mornings were the toughest—she often reported arguments and threats to kick her out of the house. When it was nearly time for class, she would smile, thank me for listening, and say that she would see me tomorrow. Her positive attitude and desire to finish school demonstrated the spirit that got her through. I also hope that my offers of support, guidance, and friendship gave her the additional courage she needed to persevere and graduate.
—Jeff Duncan, instructional systems specialist, Quantico, Virginia

"You're Brain Damaged!"

Few of us escape childhood without the occasional taunt from a classroom bully. When called names, some of us cry and some throw a good punch. My 12-year-old student Brian took a different approach.
Brian had cerebral palsy. He struggled with fine motor tasks and walked with an unsteady gait. He needed extra time to write down homework assignments and travel to classes. Most of his classmates enjoyed Brian's company and never commented on his slow pace. One day, however, a student named Paul became frustrated when Brian seemed to be holding up the cafeteria line. "I know what your problem is," he shouted, "You're brain damaged!" "Yes I am," responded Brian confidently, "I have cerebral palsy." Brian calmly explained what cerebral palsy was and how it affected him. With resilience born from the support of family members, medical professionals, and friends, Brian had learned to respond to challenges with honest answers and a positive outlook. At that moment, Brian may have thought that he was teaching Paul about cerebral palsy. His response, however, taught everyone an even more important lesson—the power of self-confidence.
—Helen Hoffner, professor, Holy Family University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

A Stable Environment Makes the Difference

One example of student resilience stands out from my work with children in foster care. A group of five siblings had a history of sporadic school attendance, discipline incidents, and academic problems. But once they were placed in foster care, they all did an immediate 180-degree turnaround. The oldest teen, who had failed 8th grade, made a two-hour round trip every day for six weeks to make up his credits in summer school. The more rebellious middle schooler became a model student with strong social skills. One of the younger siblings not only improved academically but also turned out to be a gifted athlete when she was given the chance to participate in sports. All of them benefited from caring foster families as well as teachers, principals, and support personnel. They clearly responded to structure, high expectations, discipline, and safe environments in which they felt they could be themselves. We as educators know that this is no magic formula, but just business as usual for us in school. But for these children, it was an amazing new world full of friends, possibilities, and great futures.
—Deb Schmalholz, professor, Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago

Calm Resolve in a Crisis

I've been teaching in Tokyo for six years. The 2011 Tohoku earthquake happened near the end of a school day on a Friday. As we rode out the shaking and bumping, I watched a 10th grader calmly console a classmate. An 8th grader cared for and reassured her toddler sibling until her mother—who had to walk across the city—could get to the school. That day, I saw what my students were made of, and I was impressed with their resilience.
—Lois Warner, curriculum coordinator, Seisen International School, Tokyo, Japan

Worth Waiting for Mom

As a 6th grade teacher, my team and I implemented student-led conferences. Every student had to conduct a conference with a parent or trusted adult. If the parent was not able to make it, a staff member in the building would stand in as a trusted adult for the student.
One little boy desperately wanted his mom to be a part of his student-led conference. She was a single parent who often worked until after dinner time, and despite our efforts we had been unable to schedule a conference with her. I told the boy that the assistant principal would love to stand in for his conference and that he could share his conference folder with mom at home—but he was adamant about wanting his mom to be a part of the event. After four scheduling attempts, his student-led conference finally took place in the evening about a month after the scheduled conference period. It was a beautiful conference, and the boy's confidence and competence level grew to new heights.
—Catherine Meyer, director of professional development, Traverse City Area Public Schools, Traverse City, Michigan

Finding a Voice

Giving an oral presentation, or even volunteering answers aloud in the classroom, is daunting for many students. It is particularly challenging if done in a foreign language. I was not surprised when one of my Spanish II students—a shy, diminutive girl—put me on notice early on that she had no intention of giving an oral presentation. She asserted, "You don't understand! I don't even talk in my other classes, where I could use English. Don't expect me to do it here."
So when this self-proclaimed terrified student volunteered to be the first to give her short oral presentation one day, it was a "stand up and cheer" moment! The class burst into applause in recognition of her courage, which demonstrated to her peers that people can change and grow and that risk-taking is good. She now justifiably boasts of her survival skills. Bravo!
—Mary Louise Castillo, Spanish teacher, Mercy High School, Burlingame, California

Athletics Instill Confidence

I remember a student who had been passed from one relative to another so often that he practically raised himself. There had been addiction problems in the immediate family, and at one time he even lived in a house with dirt floors. Yet this young man in my 8th grade classroom was confident, organized, goal-oriented, polite, and responsible. Where did that resilience come from? I think it was because he was a superb athlete. Even though he possessed natural ability, it was his perseverance and commitment to practice and improvement that set him apart. By experiencing the rewards of hard work in sports, he was able to see the cause-and-effect relationship and apply it to other aspects of his life.
—Marianne Auch, teacher, Beaumont, Alberta, Canada

"I'm Not My Older Brother"

Every teacher has had that feeling of trepidation when we've skimmed through our rosters before the first day of school and spotted those familiar surnames—the younger siblings of students who have behavioral and academic problems. Garret was one such student. His older brother, Jesse, had all but burned his bridges during his short time in high school. From discipline problems to extended truancies to incarceration, Jesse's life choices were the only family example that his little brother had to follow. With their father estranged and their mother in and out of rehab, the boys had pretty much raised themselves with the help of their recently deceased maternal grandmother.
I had both boys as students in my class three years apart, and my heart always ached for them. Recently, I ran into Garret in the hallway. He told me that he was on track to graduate in 2015, a year behind his age group. The fact that he had stayed in school, kept out of trouble, and managed to get caught up on his credits filled me with hope. He said this was all thanks to the wonderful teachers at our school who believed in him. Unfortunately, he told me that his older brother was back in jail, and so was their mother. I just hugged him and told him how proud I was of him.
—Lauretta Boulton, math teacher, Boise, Idaho

The Strength to Overcome Grief

One of our students lost her mother early this past school year. Overcome with sadness and feeling disconnected, the student talked to her mentor about dropping out of high school. After a few conversations, the mentor was able to help the student see that dropping out was not the best option. The student pushed through her personal pain and finished the year with a B average. Her resilience came from not only her desire to succeed, but also her knowledge that she would be supported every step of the way. She understands now that no burden is more powerful than she is. With great pride, she proved to herself that no matter what obstacle life puts in her path, she will not let it defeat her.
—Eileen Vice, lead teacher, Exton, Pennsylvania

"Don't Pity Me"

Selena had been a student in my 4th grade class many years ago. Now 19 years old, Selena reconnected with me after one of her peers and also a former student of mine accidentally overdosed on drugs.
Selena's childhood had been tough, and she had experienced years of abuse. In spite of this, she was now a successful college student. The secret to her resilience, she said, lay in not accepting being pitied. "I hated when teachers looked at me with pity. I wanted teachers to push me and expect the same from me as everyone else. You, Mrs. Potter, didn't pity me." From Selena, I learned that each resilient student is driven by a core belief. Selena dared anyone to tell her that life circumstances defined who she was.
—Keely Potter, reading teacher, Jackson County School District, Gainesboro, Tennessee
Editor's note: Student names are pseudonyms.

This article was published anonymously, or the author name was removed in the process of digital storage.

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