The Boy No One Could See

Kim CarterAffinities, Classroom Culture, Learning, Student Strengths, Student Weaknesses, Teacher Effectiveness, Teachers

By Mary-Dean Barringer, CEO of All Kinds of Minds and co-author of Schools for All Kinds of Minds

When writing Schools for All Kinds of Minds, I had multiple insights I wanted to share.  Many of these insights were supported by social science research.  For example, Malcolm Gladwell and Karl Weick show us how “small wins” can be tipping points for change.  And numerous researchers have documented the value of using neuroscience findings to better understand the many moving parts of learning and better understand students.

But some of the book’s insights were based less on research and more on what we’ve learned from our collective experiences as teachers.  Chapter 4, “Digging Deeper: Knowing Students as Learners,” captures one such insight.

Knowing your Students is Vital

In Chapter 4, we urge educators to become “kid watchers” to find those relevant pieces of data that could be life-changing.  I have heard from so many children that they want a teacher in their life that really knows them.  For me, embracing the All Kinds of Minds approach described in the book is a way to demonstrate that you really know a child.  I’m driven by seeing too many kids disappear from the radar screen of teachers or parents. 

I’ve also seen the power of one “small win” change the course of a child’s life.  This is a story from my own family, one that was running through my head during the book’s creation.

Michael: Under the Radar

Michael is part of the kind of upper middle class family in which we assume the kids will be just fine.  But behind the doors were a relatively absent father and a mother battling her own demons with mental illness. 

He dealt with his family challenges by trying not to draw attention to himself but finding some things that made him feel proud.  Neither a bad nor exceptional student, school provided little guidance.  Michael became a fantastic skateboarder in elementary school and taught himself how to play multiple musical instruments.  By high school, he was pegged as a skateboard slacker, and he increasingly distanced himself from school life.

Moving On … But to What?

By the start of his senior year, Michael had fulfilled all of the graduation requirements and had taken the SAT.  The school granted him permission not to attend school if he enrolled in community college.  Michael moved out of his house and never looked back toward his high school. 

After two years of community college, Michael accompanied one of his friends on a visit to New Mexico State University.  He figured that while he was there, he would talk to someone to find out if he could get in, so he grabbed his SAT report and community college report cards.  

A New Beginning

Upon reviewing the documents Michael had brought, a student advisor asked him, “Did you know you nailed a perfect score on your math SATs?”  He told Michael that he could get scholarships, questioned why he took such low-level math courses at community college, and encouraged him to pursue engineering.

These were new questions and ideas for Michael.  No one had ever explained “placing out” of courses or looked at his SAT scores.  That day, he completed the university placement test well before the allotted time.  

He drove home, packed all his belongings, and cut off 14 inches of hair.  When he stopped by his parents’ house to say goodbye, he responded to their look of shock by declaring, “I’m an engineering student!”  Four weeks later, he had scholarship dollars and was enrolled in advanced math as an engineering student at New Mexico State University.

“Small Wins” in Action

In five minutes’ time, someone noticed a critical detail that not only changed how Michael saw himself, it changed the trajectory of his life.  The student advisor looked beyond the surface at the skateboard slacker, noticed data that revealed mismatches, and saw a boy with extraordinary mathematical talent that had escaped the eyes of many teachers as well as his own parents. 

This story is the inspiration for Chapter 4 and a powerful example of why it is so important to continually watch for the nugget of data that can make all the difference in knowing a child and ensuring they are on the path toward success in school and life.

What happened with Michael came about, in a sense, accidentally – not through the careful observation of a teacher skilled in “kid watching.”  We wrote Chapter 4 to help teachers make such “aha” moments deliberate, and not leave these kinds of life-changing insights to chance.

Tell Us Your Story!

Do you have a story about how “kid watching” really paid off?  How getting to know a student as a learner really made a difference for that student?  What are your strategies for getting to know your students as learners?  Share your experience with us below.

Note from All Kinds of Minds:  Did you hear about our free book giveaway?  Each week that we feature a blog post related to Schools for All Kinds of Minds, we’ll be giving away a free, signed copy of the book!  To be entered to win this week, you must subscribe to our blog and share your thoughts about this blog entry by posting a comment.  We look forward to hearing from you!

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