I worked as an apprentice teacher in fifth grade when I began teaching. In the first few weeks, it became apparent that a student, let’s call him Michael, was struggling to read and even felt shameful about the fact. He made it clear that recess was his favorite activity (and P.E. just after that) and that he’d rather be elsewhere than in school. In trying to figure out what could inspire a mindset change about being at school and learning there in particular, I pulled him from music (a class he didn’t mind as he was creative and artistic) and we worked on reading aloud together. It didn’t matter that adults were around. Having his peers out of earshot as he struggled to read with fluency was all it took. He tried his best and worked harder than I had seen him work up to that point. We found some easier sentences and paragraphs that struck the perfect balance in terms of difficulty for his level, and his eyes lit up. I was thrilled, of course, because this was one of the first times I had felt I was making an impact as a teacher.
After what felt like a short time, a teacher I was apprenticing under asked me to help bring the kids back from recess. I paused with a furrowed brow. That’s right. Recess is after music. And we’ve been reading this whole time. With some trepidation, I looked sideways at Michael, who didn’t seem to take notice. “Sure,” I replied. What do I tell Micahel? If he’s upset that I took his recess to work, I’ll have crossed him, his parents, and my teachers. I’ll have angered a struggling student, who will have his vengeance in the form of disrupting class, and it’s only the beginning of the year. The fears were piling up. “Hey Michael, I’m really sorry about this,” I bumbled, “It seems we lost track of time and–again, I didn’t mean for this to happen–we missed recess today.” He shrugged his shoulders and didn’t say much. We cleaned up quickly and hurried outside. The kids were already lining up, and his friends were asking where had been. Micahel fell in line and we went to the classroom.
As they were going in, I pulled Michael again to apologize. If I over apologize, that will put him in the position of being magnanimous. Everyone wants to be that, right? “Hey Micahel, I just wanted to say again that I’m really sorry we missed recess. I honestly didn’t mean to take your recess time.” Michael, with a grin and shrug said, “It’s alright. I’m glad we got to work on it.” That’s it?? That was it. No bitter feelings, no revenge, no long phone calls with angry parents or teachers, no starting the year on the wrong foot.
I meant what I said, I never pulled another student from recess for remediation again (intentionally or unintentionally). Still, when reflecting on that moment, I’ve realized it highlights a simple truth. Kids want to learn and, when they are given the content appropriate for where they are as individuals (without the judgment of their peers), they are thrilled to learn. They can be so interested in learning that they enjoy learning more than recess (as Michael did). Part of the art of motivating kids to learn is discerning what exactly they need help with.