A Tale of Two Perspectives: My Experience Starting with a Clean Slate

In my 10 years of teaching the ninth grade, I, as have many of my colleagues, have struggled with a certain category of students – the low performers. These are the boys and girls who walk into our classes on the first day of school expecting to fail. They know nothing about us, but we represent every adult that has ever failed them in the past. These kids have a legacy of failure. One so deeply instilled into their own self-image that the prophecy is undeniably self-fulfilling.

For 9 years, I tried a multitude of strategies, all with negligible results. But last year, I tried a very specific strategy that went against everything I was told to do as a teacher. Yet, it completely changed the atmosphere of my classroom and the way these “low performers” saw my class. What’s most amazing is that this entire strategy took place on one single day – the first day of school.

I’m first going to walk through my standard first day of school prep from a teacher’s perspective. During the week leading up to the first day, as my new rosters of students were being made available for me, I would focus on every bit of data I could possibly acquire about them. Wanting to get to know their strengths and weaknesses early, I valued and appreciated everything. First and foremost, there were the legal documents for my Special Education kids (IEPs, BIPs, etc). Then, I’d focus on my district’s tools to access all previous state assessment, district assessment and cognitive testing scores. I’d then work diligently to establish a seating chart with a focus on heterogeneous grouping. For each group of four, I’d place one high student, one low student, and two middle students together. I’d work especially hard to make sure my Special Education kids were separated and in the front groups. This way, from the first day, my kids could learn from each other, develop strong relationships, and grow as a group.

Sounds great, right? Everything I’ve ever been told about the first day of school supports this idea. However, things always seemed to go south after just a few days. My high kids seemed annoyed, my low kids seemed annoyed, and my middle kids seemed completely apathetic. What makes so much sense in theory was crashing and burning in practice, and I couldn’t figure out why.

Now, let’s consider this same first day from the perspective of the low performer:

“I’m so nervous about going back to school. It brings nothing but negative emotions to mind, and I always feel so dumb. My teacher’s going to hate me because I’m so dumb and the smart kids are gonna laugh at me.”

“But maybe this year will be different! Maybe, if I try hard from the start, I can change things! Maybe it won’t be so bad!”

Walking in on the first day:

“There’s a seating chart. Okay, wait a minute. I’m in the front. Looking at my group, one kid’s super smart and gets everything right. The other two are good students, too. I’m obviously the dumb one. All the super smart kids are split up one per group. All my SpEd friends are split up, too, and we’re all in the front. I’m stupid to think things could ever change. This is my role. This is what I’ll always be.”

Last year, on the first day of school, I tried something completely different, and I told my kids all about it when they walked in. There was a seating chart, as I wanted to establish some basic norms, but it was alphabetical and backwards, with my Zs at the front and As in the back (because I figured the Zs were tired of always being in the back). The kids walked in and sat down. I then proceeded to blow their minds:

“I want to talk to you a bit about your seats. I want to make it very clear that I have purposely avoided learning anything about you except your names, and I promise not to look up anything about you for the first two weeks of school. This way, any ideas or thoughts I have about you will be based on our face-to face interactions every day. Today, in my class, all of you start with a clean slate. I don’t care how successful or unsuccessful you’ve been in the past, because in this class, it doesn’t matter. How you perform this year is based entirely on how much effort, excitement and motivation you show in this class every single day. I’m so excited to start this journey with you, and I can’t wait to see how far we’ll move together.”

Of course, I did the legal stuff. I paid attention to any required accommodations and quietly made them available, but I didn’t let those Special Education kids know that I knew. I let every one of my students develop whatever persona they wanted. I developed relationships with every one of my kids that were sincere, honest and mutually respectful. Then, the two-week mark passed. As a homage to everyone that has ever told me how valuable data is, I looked up my kids… and was completely shocked! Kids I clearly would have pegged as GT were not. Those with horrible assessment scores were many of my group leaders. The low socioeconomic status kids were actively engaged with smiles on their faces.

My kids honestly felt as if they were equals, both with each other and with me. We continued our journey together for the rest of the year, and my “low performer” group was nonexistent. My kids always knew I saw them for exactly who they were and not what their stats said about them. They knew I had no preconceived ideas about them, no stereotypes. They knew I cared about them because I took the time to truly get to know them.

A new school year is starting soon, and I know exactly how I’m going to prepare my student background analysis… I’m not.

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