I believe that a little embarrassment can be a powerful motivator.
I don't ever want a child to feel bad about herself as a person, but if she takes my disappointment in her grades or choices as a personal hurt, it can be powerful. It means we have enough of a relationship that she cares about my opinion. It means that she believes I have high expectations of her. It means that she knows I am paying attention.
I asked her to name names. After all, since I teach only freshmen, there is a one in four shot I know every kid. My hope was that I might be able to give her some insight based on my experiences with one or more of them.
She named a couple of students I was not familiar with, then she said and "Anton."
"Wait." I said, "Anton Q.? My Anton? I know that kid and that should NOT be happening."
I said, "On Monday, can you send him to me? I need to see what is going on."
She said "sure" and the conversation carried us in another direction.
Monday morning, I saw Anton as he was entering my colleague's classroom.
"Hey Anton," I hollered, "C'mere. I got a bone to pick with you!" and dragged him into my empty classroom. I waited until the door swung shut behind us, then I turned and looked up at him (he is at least 18 inches taller than I am).
"Anton, what's going on with your grade?" I said, "because your name came up this weekend and your English teacher said you aren't doing anything."
He shrugged and muttered something unintelligible about being "lazy."
I went on, "I was so embarrassed. As soon as she mentioned your name I started bragging on you and what a strong student you had been in my class and then she said your failing." I paused, "That hurts my heart."
He stared down at me. He looked surprised and sad and maybe a little scared.
I said, "Are all your grades bad right now?"
He nodded and repeated "I've just been lazy."
"Anton, I don't want you to feel bad, I mean feel bad that your grades suck, but I am not trying to make you feel bad about yourself, I just want to know everything is ok."
"I'm good," he said, "I just haven't been doing stuff."
"Ok," I responded, "Why not though?"
"I don't know" he said slowly.
"Anton, I don't believe you. This, this is not you. So something is going on even its just in your head. And you don't have to tell me, but talk to somebody. Talk to your counselor or your principal or your momma or a friend, but don't keep it all bottled up, whatever it is."
He smiled sadly, "Ok. Ms. Hirsch, ok."
I asked him "Anton, you still want to go to college, right?"
"Yes." he responded without any hesitation.
"And how do you pay for college? How do you buy a free college education? What's the currency?"
"My grades" he said. This is not a new idea. I frequently tell students grades and credits are like money: you earn them so you can buy what comes next in your life as cheaply as possible. I mean it literally and figuratively.
"Right! So, can you afford to have a semester of your Junior year where you just don't make any grades?"
He shook his head.
"And Anton, you know parent teacher conferences are only like three weeks away, right?"
His eyes widened, but he didn't say anything. I remember his mother. She is fierce. He should probably be worried.
Finally I said, "Anton, the thing I want you to know and to remember, is that I care about you and I am paying attention."
Suddenly, he leaned down and hugged me and said quietly, "Ms. Hirsch, I'm gonna do better."
We both smiled and I said "You better! Because I am paying attention now and I'm gonna check up on you--and I have student teacher right now so I have the time to do it too!"
He smiled and went back across the hall to his class.
Later in the day, his current English teacher told me that he came back to class, got right to work, and aced a quiz. She also told me that she hasn't been able to get a hold of anyone at home and none of the numbers are working.
That is unusual and may explain a lot.
I passed on that information and my conversation with Anton to his counselor...who immediately called him down to make sure Anton knew he was paying attention too.
I saw Anton as he was leaving the guidance office and he gave me a look that seemed to say "Ok, I get it. You guys are paying attention and I need to get it together." He smiled as he disappeared down the hall.
Maybe our conversation will make a lasting impression, maybe not. I think it might. I know I will keep checking on him. I think knowing we are paying attention will help him.
Sometimes the best thing is being reminded that somebody cares.