Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati
She started at my school around a month later than all of the other Year 11 students.
“I’ve never studied chemistry before. I don’t know anything” she said.
As an E.A.L. student from overseas she was faced with three monumental challenges in Thailand:
- Adapting to a new climate, culture, environment and school
- Continuing to learn English
- Learning advanced chemistry through the medium of English, having never learnt any chemistry before
Most mature adults would find these three challenges incredibly difficult to overcome.
This girl was only 15.
Her peers had been learning chemistry since Year 7: a whole 4-years of prior training. She was at a massive disadvantage.
“If you want to learn to swim jump into the water. On dry land no frame of mind is ever going to help you.”
Many of our students learn best when they are faced with tough challenges like this girl was. Some students don’t realize they are in the ‘deep-end’ until they are thrown in and asked to swim. This new Year 11 girl was visibly stressed in the three days before her first chemistry test: a paper that covered the bare fundamentals.
“I’m just going to fail this test aren’t I?” she said.
She did fail that test. She got a grade U.
With only seven months to go before the final IGCSE exams, I was tempted (but only tempted) to think like most other teachers would: that there was little hope of her getting a decent grade in her final exams.
I chose not to think that way.
I scheduled weekly 15-minute meetings with this student, in an attempt to teach her the basics and to encourage her.
“You can do this! With regular practice and good revision you can get an excellent grade in Chemistry”
This is the mantra that I would repeat to her on a frequent basis. By providing her with extension work, tailored help and the verbal expression of my sincere belief in her (and anything we do as teachers must be sincere, otherwise it is ineffective), she started to believe she could achieve too.
“Goals. There’s no telling what you can do when you get inspired by them. There’s no telling what you can do when you believe in them. And there’s no telling what will happen when you act upon them.”
She gradually climbed the ladder of grades as her assessments kept coming in: first achieving grades Es, then Ds, and then the magical grade ‘C’ came along.
“Wow! I got a grade C!” she said.
This was quite a monumental moment – this was the stage when the ‘veil lifted’ and she finally realised that she had the power to do anything she wished, if she had a goal in mind and worked towards it. She was now getting grades comparable to an average student in the class.
But it didn’t stop there.
During her mock exams, four months before the finals, she got a grade ‘A’.
“This is outstanding. Now you have shown all of the other students that effort is what really matters when achieving results in life. You’ve beaten most of the other students, and all because you worked hard and set your sights high.” – she walked away with a smile when I told her that.
It was a real pleasure for me to she this young girl transform from a shy and scared new student to a really confident and happy person. She beamed with smiles when she came to Chemistry class on the run-up to the final exams – she understood all of the content now.
Our parting words before she took her finals went something like this:
“You’ve helped me so much, Mr Rogers. I’ll never forget it”
“You did all the hard work” I said. “Now go for it! Enjoy the exam and show everyone in the world what happens when a person works hard towards a goal they’ve chosen. Show the world how great you are.”
Her results came through in August of that year – she got a grade A* (the highest grade achievable).
Not bad for 8 months of work by a student who had never learned chemistry before.
The ‘belief’ factor
This girl’s story is one of so many that I have found to be typical in the teaching profession. Just one of many experiences of a similar nature that I have had along the way. However, an ugly culture has formed in many schools around the world which I’d like to address here:
- A student’s past does not equal their future: contrary to popular belief
- If a student does not have any cognitive difficulties, or Special Educational Needs, then that student is capable of getting an A* in the final exams (provided there is a reasonable time-frame). It really is that simple.
- As teachers, we have to adopt “I will not accept mediocrity” as our personal mantra. When we only accept the best, we get the best.
- If a student goes down a grade in a test or assessment, I’ll make them re-do the test a week later. It’ll be different questions, of course, but it will cover the same content. I simply will not allow grades to slip. When students realise that you will not allow them to drop in grades, they then are motivated to push themselves. This also builds up belief, because when a student sees that their grades increase in the re-test, they realise that poor grades are the result of poor effort; not difficult questions. They hold themselves accountable.
- Disappointment works better than anger – it shows that you care about your kids. If a student produces shoddy homework or or simply hasn’t revised enough for a test, then I’ll sit them down at my desk and have a talk. I’ll genuinely be disappointed, and my words will be carefully chosen. I’ll tell the student that their work just isn’t acceptable (oops – isn’t that taboo these days!). If we don’t tell our students the truth, then we’re really just deceiving them, aren’t we? I’ll remind them of their past achievements, however small, and I’ll tell them, sincerely, that they can achieve greatness.
- Too many teachers put the burden of total responsibility on the shoulders of the student but do little to address that responsibility. “He just doesn’t care”, “He just doesn’t get it” and “It just doesn’t sink-in” are phrases that are spoken all too commonly in school staff rooms. When we hear comments like this, our response ought to be something like “Okay, so what are we going to do about it?”. Guess what – there’s a lot that we can do to turn things around. We’re not miracle workers, but we really can make a massive difference when we deliberately try to, and when we believe we can.
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