Her Champion


When Hope Isn’t Enough

New shoes. New markers and pre-sharpened, long pencils with perfect, nubby erasers. A special tartan plaid metal lunch box with a matching thermos. Her supplies represented her hope of a new school year. This school year would be better. This year she would live up to the expectations of the clean, unmarred sheets of loose leaf paper that sat in her bookbag, ready to capture her learning and please her teachers. This would be the year her report card, filled with good grades and glowing teacher comments, would make her parents proud. Make herself proud.

Third grade was bound to be different than that mess of second grade. She had learned her lesson about daydreaming, chatting with peers, forgetting to take home her student workbook for math homework. If there was a concrete symbol or reminder of the disaster of second grade it had to be the large, pretend play cardboard cabin in the classroom. She remembered the first time Mrs. Lamb made her sit at a desk placed inside the cabin as a consequence for being distracted and talking at her seat. She was asking her classmate to repeat something she didn’t hear. She felt lost and couldn’t figure out what she was supposed to be doing on the worksheet in front of her, but to her teacher she was distracted and also distracting someone else. The shame of being isolated from her classmates and from activities was a powerful message that did nothing to help her learn about staying on task, and only reinforced a growing negative narrative about herself as a student. She kept this secret to herself, never letting her parents know, trying to keep the charade going a little longer that she loved school, that she was good at school. Each day she came to school with a little hope that on that particular day she would be able to win-over Mrs. Lamb and make her see who she really was. Each day she wished for the chance to start new and see a light in Mrs. Lamb’s eyes. But, no matter what she did, or how she tried to be different for Mrs. Lamb, she felt unseen, no matter if she was in the box or not. Perhaps it was the need to feel valued by her teacher that made her do such a desperate act. She hated remembering the conversation in the principal’s office where she begged him not to alert her parents about being caught erasing her classmate’s name on the homework sheet and writing in her own. She had known how wrong it was to do it, but she so desperately wanted to avoid another moment of  disappointment, another screw-up. She could almost believe the made up story she concocted right before the teacher figured out the truth. Nope. She wasn’t going to go down that road again. No more Mrs. Lamb or any other teacher escorting her by her ear to the office. Third grade would be different. 

And so, third grade rolled into fourth grade, fourth to  fifth, and fifth to sixth. Her story remained the same from year to year: a girl with heaps of curiosity and love of nature, science-minded, freckled and bubbly, friendly and outgoing, confident in some areas, and yet deeply conflicted about her inability to make school a good fit and negative image of herself as a student. Each new school year brought the eternal hope that this would be the year she was able to overcome the challenges from the previous years. Some years there was an added pressure when she connected with a teacher that she really liked.  Although it felt good to be connected and to know her teacher liked her, she also felt a sense of doom, waiting for that moment where she would surely let this teacher down too. Nobody, not even her parents, understood how much she wished she could be different. No matter how hard she tried to live up to incentive charts and avoid painful consequences for missed homework or failed quizzes, the truth was most nights she cried herself to sleep. Many nights she prayed she would not wake up.

She would never forget the December evening of her sixth grade year when her father asked to speak with her. There was a sense of formality. Before he even spoke a word, she was scared. Her instincts were right. She remembers thinking the words coming out of her father’s mouth couldn’t really be true. There was a moment she began to feel disconnected from those words and herself, and her father, as if she were a third person in the room observing from a distance. It wasn’t her that was being told she wouldn’t be returning to her middle school after the Christmas holiday. It wasn’t she who would have to explain to her friends that she would no longer be their classmate. It wasn’t she who would have to walk into a different sixth grade class at a tiny private, religious school in the area. It wasn’t she whose life was completely changing. And at eleven years old, any change from familiar felt frightening, even if the familiar was miserable.

What she didn’t understand was that after years of advocating for help on behalf of their daughter to teachers, principals, and central office personnel, her parents made the difficult decision to pull her from public education, the point of contention being the school system’s delay in providing a child study to evaluate their daughter’s learning. In a desperate move to provide a smaller class size, a new start, and something to intervene  the ominous downward spiral their daughter was trapped in, they informed the public school system their daughter was leaving. 

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At the start of the new year on a cold January morning, she entered the doors of her new school and began a new daily routine, with new faces, and acclimated to new expectations and structures. She was thankful for the kind face and eyes of her new teacher as she tried to make friends with the new group of sixth and seventh grade kids, skeptical about letting a public school kid into their close-knit circle.  Funny though, that what she remembers as the hardest part from this experience was her afternoon walk from the school to her father’s law office. The mile walk wasn’t the problem, it was the school buses passing her with her former classmates and friends looking out the windows. Even now, she can recall the feelings of her 12 year old self and how embarrassed and humiliated she felt for standing out, being different. She hated herself for not being better at school, not being able to consistently hit the mark, get the grades. In her mind, grades were the one thing that had caused her more pain in measuring her weakness and separating her from being normal. More than anything, she just wanted to fit in somewhere. As with most of life’s challenges, things were about to get worse before getting better. 

Different Can Be Better

In her small community, word spread about her departure from public school. Everyone knew it was because of her parents’ frustration with the school system’s missteps in not providing the support she so desperately needed. So, it wasn’t long before she found herself sitting with specialists and doctors completing a series of evaluations that were years too late. The results were not surprising, yet totally life altering. There are moments in time that are like lines in the sand. They are a demarcation. This was one of those for her. There would always be a life before that moment and a life after. The evaluations showed the discrepancy between her ability and her performance. It was discovered that she had an auditory processing disability. 

The news was bittersweet. She remembers the way her father spoke to her about the results. There was a heaviness in the tender way he talked with her, measured, and with glistening, loving eyes. She also saw the relief on his face that there were answers to all of the questions. However in a small rural town in Virginia, to this twelve year old with very little understanding of Special Education, being labeled as Learning Disabled felt like a death sentence, despite the clarity it provided her parents. Additionally, they learned that in order  to receive the support of a resource class the State would provide she had to leave her new school and return to her old middle school to attend this special ed class. Anxiety reached a fever pitch as she wrestled with her identity and felt more vulnerable than ever. She wished she could disappear from the planet. Every night she went to bed she dreaded the next day.

Fortunately, although she didn’t know it, life was taking a turn for the better, she was about to catch the break of a lifetime, a champion of her cause. 

In Walked Mrs. Gillam

Enter Diane Gillam, who newly graduated with her Masters degree from the University of Virginia, was armed with the latest research and pedagogy. She was just the person who was needed to raise awareness about the legitimacy and legality of IEPs and student accommodations, and to help her students begin a transformation process in their learning, and identity. Mrs. Gillam epitomized quality, professionalism, and high standards. She was organized, prepared, intelligent, and kind. She carried herself with confidence and dignity. For her new 12 year old student, Mrs. Gillam was a force; a positive, strong force with a single vision, a relentless quest. Mrs. Gillam attacked the status quo with understanding, information, specific strategies, and advocacy. Abby learned about her disability. Mrs. Gillam armed her with knowledge and helped her build skill sets to accommodate areas of weakness. She went to battle with teachers not wanting to comply with IEPs, advocated for Abby with her parents at times, and consistently held her student accountable until new habits and strategies were formed. There was a constant cycle of practice, reflection, and moving forward. Abby became more self-aware and began to self-regulate. She learned how to be proactive and navigate her way out of problematic situations. A new story was taking shape for her, one she would author.  

Fortune would have it as she left middle school to begin high school so would Mrs. Gillam. Together they would navigate new landscapes, new classes, and new teachers. They discovered the balance between academics with social and extracurricular activities. There was algebra, chemistry, and AP English, along with Student Council Association, tennis, skiing, and Forensics competitions. There were highs to be celebrated, and lows to dig out of. Through those twists and turns, Abby was learning how “failure” was just part of the learning process. It wasn’t an end of her story, just a part of it.

Abby learned how to advocate for herself, she learned how to own her mistakes and the value of accountability, and she learned that with perseverance she could determine her learning outcomes . It was not always smooth sailing. Often, Abby found herself investing in one subject to improve her grades to the detriment of other classes; sort of a “whack-a-mole” approach to her high school grades. But, she continued to build an arsenal of study and learning skills to combat areas of weakness and trouble spots as she moved through high school. 

By the end of her 10th grade year, Abby hit a milestone and a sort of untethering. Due to her proficiency in her academic classes, it was determined that she would no longer require the accommodations of a resource class and would be placed on ‘monitor status’. And, as it turned out, Abby would be doing this without the guidance of Mrs. Gillam, as she was leaving to take a position with the state. The next two years would prove a valuable transition to becoming more independent and prepared for life beyond high school. 

Abby remembers feeling a surreal moment when she sent her acceptance to college. Afterall, it wasn’t long ago that she had spent nights worrying about how she could make it through the next day--much less, graduate from high school. Abby knew she was equipped for college. In many ways, she felt much more prepared than many of her classmates. All those skills she developed and practiced countless times would prove to be valuable and help assure her success. The very part of herself that made her feel so ashamed was now the part she felt most secure in and strengthened by.  It reminded her what she had learned about broken bones: they heal stronger than before they were broken. She used her story as the basis for her college application essay titled, “Turning Stumbling Blocks Into Stepping Stones.” Through the arduous journey, she became her own champion. 

Building Upon the Legacy

Fast forward to 2019. For the child that grew up avoiding school, it may seem odd that most of my days are now spent within the concrete walls of a classroom. I teach 100 sixth graders daily in the same county where I grew up. When I think back and reflect on MY story, I see how my schooling experiences impact my teaching philosophy of today. Connecting with my students and building a relationship with them is of the highest priority.  I want them to know they are seen and valued. I want them to see my eyes light up when I see their face. I want to help students look at their strengths as gifts to contribute and build on, and their weaker areas as opportunities for growth and learning, not as roadblocks but rather part of the learning process.

As a teacher it is so important to me that the pedagogy I practice brings no harm and only enriches the learner and their community. I review my systems and procedures regularly.

  • How can I minimize the damages and harmful consequences that stem from grading practices to benefit a rich culture of learning with my sixth grade students? 

  • How might I harness a student’s love of learning, curiosity, and interest to motivate them?

  • What platforms and methods can I use with students so they feel ownership of their learning, and see themselves as the authors of their own stories? 

  • For too long school has been about compliance, about points and letter grades and rankings. What if we made it about inquiry, deep learning, and commitment? 

  • How can I build a culture in my classroom that connects all of us in empathy, that informs us how to proceed through difficult moments with care and preservation of dignity in mind?

Nearly three decades ago, I needed a champion to believe in me when I could not believe in myself. I needed a champion to fight for me when I could not fight for myself. My life turned around when that champion walked into my life and reminded me I was valuable. Mrs. Gillam filled that role until the moment I could become my own champion. 

As the nervous, eager, hopeful students enter my sixth grade classroom this year, with their backpacks full of new supplies, they will have my commitment to be their champion.

Until they are able to champion themselves.