09/28/2018 | With Amy Newmark, from Chicken Soup for the Soul
Or been guilty of it yourself? How sad to go into a situation with preconceived ideas without giving an event or a person the benefit of the doubt.
This kind of thing happens all the time. It even happens in the classroom, or the teachers’ lounge, or the district supervisor’s office, and everywhere in between.
The beginning of a new school year is the perfect time to throw away those preconceived notions. After all, everyone and everything is entitled to a fresh start — and that includes curriculum, students, parents and teachers.
Third-grade teacher Diane Stark talked about this in her story entitled “Brand New Starts” in our Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales book. Just before the start of school one of the second-grade teachers stopped Diane in the hall and reached for the class roster Diane had just received. She wanted to help Diane by telling her about the students she would have in her classroom. Diane, being new to the school and wanting to make friends, agreed to listen.
“Wow, you’re going to have a rough year,” the teacher told her. Then she began pointing to students; names. “This one’s not too bright. Oh, and her mother is a real pain. And this boy is nothing but trouble. He’ll be in jail some day, mark my words. This one can’t read. That one can’t sit still.”
She continued down the list saying something negative about nearly every child. “This one is a foster child. That one is a liar and a thief. Her father is in prison. His mother is on her fourth husband.” Finally, she stopped and handed the list back to Diane as if she had done her a big favor.
As the students came through the door on the first day of school, Diane couldn’t help but think about the other teacher’s words of warning, subconsciously prejudging each child. At lunchtime, Diane went into the teachers’ lounge. There, she met a few other teachers, and since she was new to the school, those teachers asked Diane about herself.
She shared some of the things about her life with them but when she was done she realized that she had only shared the things she wanted them to know... the positive things. She didn’t mention anything negative about herself or list any of the mistakes she had made. She didn’t mention the fact she had flunked high school chemistry or that she had gotten two speeding tickets in one day! No deep dark secrets were revealed. She only told them the things she wanted them to know.
And no one was there, pointing to her name on a list, saying negative things about her such as, “Oh that Diane Stark, you’ll have to watch out for her. She’s not a very good teacher. She waits until the last minute to do her lesson plans.” The teachers in the lounge at her new school assumed she was a good person. She was given the benefit of the doubt.
Diane decided her third graders deserved the same benefit of the doubt that the other teachers had given her. When she went back into the classroom after lunch, she discarded her lesson plans for the afternoon. Instead, she asked the children to write her letters and tell her three things they wanted her to know about themselves. “They can be about school, or about your family or your house. You can write about what you like or what you don’t like. You can tell me anything you want me to know.”
When Diane collected and read the letters she was both surprised and touched by what her students had written. Most of the students wrote about their siblings, their pets or their favorite foods. But a few of the students had gotten quite personal. The little girl whose father was in jail wrote, “My dad’s in jail because he sold drugs. He did a bad thing, but that doesn’t make him bad. It doesn’t mean that I’m bad either, even though the kids make fun of me.”
Darren, the boy the other teacher had labeled “nothing but trouble,” wrote that he hated school, he hated teachers and that he was stupid. When the rest of the class left the room to go to art class, Diane asked Darren to stay so she could talk to him. She told him she had a question about his letter and asked him to read it to her. He took the letter and said, “It says I’m a bad kid.”
Diane said, “Darren, that’s not what it says. Besides, you’re not a bad kid. You seem like a very nice boy.” She asked Darren what he had been trying to tell her when he wrote the letter. He said, “That I’m stupid. That I used to try in school but I couldn’t get it. So I stopped trying and just started being bad. Now, nobody remembers that I’m stupid.” That was true. The teacher who had gone over Diane’s class roster had only classified Darren as rebellious, not knowing that he had academic issues. His cover-up had worked!
Diane assured Darren that the last year didn’t matter. She said, “You have to try your best. And remember that every day—and every school year—is a brand new start.” After talking to Diane, Darren decided that he didn’t want to have a bad school year, and the next morning he handed the letter back to Diane. Now it read, “I used to hate school and I used to hate teachers. But that was last year.”
Luckily for Darren, and all the children in that third-grade class, Diane wasn’t swayed by what she had heard from the other teacher. She gave each student the benefit of the doubt and let everyone have a fresh start.
The beginning of the new school is a time to wipe the slate clean for everyone. Teachers need to assume that all students want to learn, and if there are problems, they need to take the time to get to the roots of the problems. And it works the other way around too. Students shouldn’t listen to the stories they’ve heard from other students about any particular teacher: “She’s tough.” “He’s mean and yells all the time.” “She doesn’t like kids with blond hair.” “If you have him for your teacher, you’ll get an F!”
You get the idea. Preconceived ideas. Gossip. Reputations. Let’s wipe the slate clean of all of them.