My most impressive student

RJK and his students in a New Trier Classroom

During my first years of teaching at New Trier, I encountered a lovely young lady in my class.  It was an average class, this was an average girl.  She was kind, diligent, a plodder of sorts.  She was not a standout, by any means.  I remember thinking that she was nothing more than an average student.  And yet, in my thirty years of teaching French at New Trier, she is the one I mentioned most in talking to my classes when discussing how to be successful. 

My previous blog posting on my situation with the North Shore Personnel Director made me think of Debbie.  Nothing should ever be taken for granted; no one should ever be discouraged in doing what he/she is trying to do.  No assumptions should ever be made about what people can or cannot do, because in the end, we never know. 

As I said, Debbie was always exemplary in being a basic good, satisfactory student who had satisfactory grades, nothing ever out of the ordinary.  But in the end, Debbie was nothing but extraordinary.

As often happened while teaching, students would mysteriously show up after graduation to see me and update me on what they were doing.  Debbie did this.  Debbie made my jaw drop.  Debbie reminded me of what is very important for teachers to know.  Never give up.  Don’t judge.  Don’t assume someone isn’t capable.  Time, maturation, enthusiasm, and motivation can make a difference.  It certainly did with Debbie.

Debbie came back to see me.  She came up to me speaking in perfect, fluent French.  Debbie told me that she was living in France and had an internship at the Louvre.  In all of my dreams, I never would have imagined that Debbie would be the student in this situation.  I would have picked all sorts of her peers to be in this position, but no, it was Debbie.  This taught me that a good teacher never ever jumps to conclusions and never does anything to stifle future productivity and dreams.

My next story that I would tell my students was of another situation, a situation where a teacher told a student something inappropriate.  The student was the best man at my wedding, a man who spoke perfect French.  Philip and I met in grad school.  He had spent much time in France and his command of the language was impeccable.  The only reason the French would not think he was French was because of his tall, thin, lanky looks, which made him look more Belgian than French.  Philip told me his high school teacher told him to drop French, that he had no ear.  If ever a teacher could have erred in a major mean spirited way, this teacher did.  Philip’s motivation took him to the point where he proved his teacher wrong.  I have to admit, however, that Philip’s teacher was right in saying that he had no ear, although, frankly, I never would have said anything like that to him.  While we worked together, Philip was studying Italian.  I saw how hard it was for him, his ear was less than perfect and it hampered his learning.  But what his teacher hadn’t accounted for was his motivation, love, and energy for the language acquisition that was his goal.  That motivation and energy is far more powerful and was able to allow him to be successful.

Note to teachers:  think carefully before saying anything that could be hurtful or harmful to your students.  Understand how human beings learn and don’t ever tell them that they are incapable of doing something.  They might just surprise you.


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