This year could have been the death nell of my career. The academic, social and emotional needs of my students overwhelmed me. Throughout the year, I found myself reciting the final stanza of Robert Frost’s poem Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Perhaps that is why my sleep tracker tells me that I average about 3.5 hours of sleep per night! If only it would track the miles we have gone. They were uphill, meandering and often felt as though they were being travelled in knee-deep snow. For most of the miles, next to my footprints you will see a trough, the rut caused as I drug one of my students alongside me against his will. So many times I wanted to stop and leave him behind, my energy zapped and my heart broken.
The places the rut disappears and changes to foot prints are the times he was working on his Genius Hour project, reading a book on Epic!, coding, making a book trailer , on a VR adventure or doing a STEM challenge. Those were the times that he could forget how he defined himself as a student: incapable. Any mention of “Yet”, “Growth Mindset”, “personal learning goals”, would shut him down completely. He wanted none of it. He said to me “Not listening to you and not trying to learn is easier than trying and failing.”
Reading through his files, I could see how he arrived there. His educational journey had been fraught with struggle in every way. There are Individual Learning Plans, Behavior Contracts, and report cards which illustrate that neither the former nor latter had any effect on improving his outcomes. Arriving in fourth grade without many tools in his belt, a habit of not working and no self-esteem created a blizzard that he wanted to immediately take shelter from. It was understandable but not acceptable. Somehow I had to find a lifeline to tether house to barn and convince him to reach out and grab it.
Building trust and reducing risk while simultaneously doing “school” is not a job for the meek. He cried – a lot. I cried on my drive home – a lot. We held meetings. A lot of meetings. His parents refused counseling, tutoring, testing, mentoring. They demanded accounability through brute force. “None of that soft stuff.” They believed that making him clean toilets at school would be the trick to getting him to invest in school. No. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t.
As the year was winding down, progress was being made academically, but there were holes I couldn’t seem to fill. He was still entrenched in “I’m just stupid” and “I hate school”. State testing nearly killed us both. It was brutally demoralizing, like hand had come down to unravel our tenuous rope.
But something happened. I don’t know what. Maybe he had shored up enough success. Last Tuesday, after crying and saying “I can’t and won’t”, he let me work with him instead of shutting him out. He listened and tried and succeeded. The next day, after too quickly finishing yet another mandated test, he came to me and asked if he could sit with me and practice what he learned and “maybe I could help him with something else he didn’t understand”. Before long I had a small group, eager to figure out or practice some math concepts.
Now here we are, fourteen days left, and miles to go before we sleep. But now it feels like a race agaisnt the clock. It took about 165 days to get this child to trust me enough and himself enough to try. We will walk together for a bit, two sets of footprints in the snow side by side. And then I have to let him go and trust that his new guide will ensure the tether does not come undone until the storm has fully passed into Spring.