Having been a teacher for many years I can relate to earlier posts about how September is that time of clean slates for both students and teachers. Those thoughts brought me right back to my second year of teaching.
I was teaching third grade for the first time in a school that was new to me. I received my room key and my class list and made my way to the second floor of a great old school building. It was a 1930's classic with hardwood floors, high ceilings, and huge windows. My list had 24 boys and girls. One of the veteran teachers on the floor poked her head in. "Do you have your list? Let me take a look."
I handed her the list and she began ticking off the names "Marie. She's sweet. David. Oh, he's nice. He's quiet, but very smart. Tania. She's a bit of a hand full." On and on till she stopped in the middle of the list. "Oh. You have Sinclair. He's just bad. Don't turn your back on that one. He hit a teacher last year!" She shook her head and went on.
As we set up our rooms that day I met another teacher who asked to see my list. I asked her about Sinclair. She was hesitant. "He has a twin brother, Otis. Otis is the nice one. But Sinclair was in a lot of trouble last year." Her mouth turned down. "Then again his father died."
That night I planned my first day. Though I was still a new teacher I knew the beginning would be important. Especially for Sinclair.
Sinclair showed up the first day pimp rolling into the room. Head shaven. Collar of his jacket up. He found his name on a desk and threw himself down in the chair. He stared at the floor. No hello. Not even a glance at me.
I was going to try something I had read about, thought about, but in only my second year, had never yet tried. I asked everyone to come up and take a seat on the carpet. "Okay. Three things I want to do to start us off. One - let's get to know each other." To do that we played a fun memory game that allowed us all to learn each others' names. Sinclair mumbled his name and did not really participate except to smirk to another boy. When I asked him a direct question he just shrugged and looked down.
After the name game, I said, "Two. I have a question for you. Why are we here?" This simple question lead to a great discussion about what their expectations were and what mine were. They were very engaged and visibly surprised. I don't think anyone had ever asked them the question before, but it helped us clarify what the real goals of our year would be and what our beliefs about school were. Sinclair studied his sneakers the whole time, picking at the frayed laces. He never once looked up. When I asked if he wanted to add anything, he shrugged to the floor.
And finally, I made the speech I probably wouldn't have, except for Sinclair. I lowered my voice. "Three. I want you all to know something. Everyone here this year starts with a clean slate."
I said the next words slowly and with emphasis, "I-do-not-care what-you-did-last-year." Sinclair finally looked up. I met his eyes. They actually, visibly widened. I continued locked in, "I don't care if it was great or terrible. I don't care if you got all A's or all F's. It doesn't matter to me what you did on the playground, or in the classroom, or even at home. It means nothing to me."
I paused again. I drew an empty rectangle on the board and wrote under it, "Clean Slate." I turned back to the group. "Your year with me starts today. Right now. This is when we begin." I stopped. "There is no limit to how good we can make this year."
Believe it or not, as hokey as that all sounds, Sinclair really heard those words. He apparently needed to hear those words. I was just lucky I sensed it.
Sinclair turned out to be a fun, intelligent, loyal, trustworthy child. He had his incidents on the playground and could get stubborn and angry, but he always kept it together. He seized his second chance. His blank slate.
Because of Sinclair, every September for the rest of my teaching career, I drew that empty rectangle on the board and talked very deliberately about the clean slate.