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Personal Stories

Who Impacted Who?

By: Nichole Wangsgard

Recently, I heard from a former student of mine, Ashley. Fourteen years have passed since I last talked to Ashley. She was one my most challenging students. Ashley was labeled as learning disabled in Math. When I saw that she had contacted me, I thought, "Oh my goodness, how is she doing?" I read her message as fast as I could.

Blast From the Past

As I was reading, for one split second, I went back in time. I visualized the first day I met Ashley. I remembered the first time she looked at me. She looked me with eyes that screamed, "You think you can teach me, I dare you to try." For days she refused to participate in any of her seven classes, even Physical Education. She transferred to my junior high school in order to live with her aunt because her mother was recently placed in jail for drug related charges.

New Kid On the Block

As the new kid on the block, Ashley was getting into more trouble and falling further behind. As a special educator, I was helping her academically for a learning disability in Math, but as time went by, I noticed more and more negative behaviors exhibited; therefore, we started helping her academically and behaviorally. In teaching Ashley, I attempted every accommodation possible and available for students with LD. I asked for help from the district, researched new techniques, purchased the latest and greatest curriculums, and nothing seemed to help Ashley.

My Own Worst Enemy

One day after school, Ashley meandered into my classroom to pick up something she had left behind. I turned my radio every Friday when school lets outs. The radio was playing softly when she walked in. The artist "Pink" was singing. Ashley looked up and said, "I love Pink." I asked why and she stated, "She's cool, and that song she's singin reminds me of me." As she said this, I noticed that she was looking at her progress report. I asked, "How do you feel about your scores?" She quickly replied, "I don't care, I never pass my classes and I never will." Without really thinking of a formal behavior plan, I said, "I'll buy you Pink's CD if you raise those scores to passing grades by the end of the term." She was walking out of my room with her back to me as I made the offer. She didn't respond. Immediately, I looked up the lyrics to Pink's song. Over and over, Pink was stating that she was her own worst enemy. In fact, the majority of the words described her failures and how she wished she could be somebody else. Ashley was connecting to Pink's lyrics.

The Turn Around

The next day Ashley brought homework to study skills class. I didn't ask her why. I realized that she did hear my offer and said "yes" in her own way. Ashley was ready to work for Pink, not me. She even asked me for help. In helping Ashley, I could see that she needed explicit, systematic instruction. Once engaged, she was capable of learning, as long as someone was there to teach, re-teach, connect concepts, and give her time, a lot of time. I finally saw a glimmer of hope in her eyes as her grades improved. Three weeks later, she passed all of her classes for the first time in her life. I rewarded her with Pink's latest CD.

Powerful Message

After a small blast from the past, I continued to read Ashley's message.
"My mom has been clean for about 7 years now, she is doing really good. I graduated from college (beauty school) a couple months ago. It's not something I really plan to do on a daily basis but it's good to have something to fall back on if anything ever happened to my job. I have been married for 5 years now and we have two daughters. You really did a lot for me when I was in school. You were the only teacher who I felt like I could talk to and back then, I needed that. I really appreciate everything you did. I was a stupid kid in jr. high, with all the problems I had at home, I thought I could get away with anything. I was so mean to a lot of people. I hurt a lot of people because I was hurting and I thought it would make me feel better, but at the end of the day I still had to go back to my home life and hurting other people didn't change that. I am glad to hear you are still teaching, you are an amazing teacher and you made a big impact in my life. It's good to know you are still teaching because that means you are still making a big impact on other peoples' lives as well, some people need that, I know I did. Thank you for everything you have done, you made a bigger impact on my life than you will ever know. I always wanted to tell you that."

In tears, I thought, "This is exactly why I am a teacher." We do make a difference and we do not have any time to waste with students with LD. They need us to press on regardless of resistance and find a way to meet their unique individual needs. I never could tell if Ashley appreciated the attention I gave her. I'm grateful that one quiet Friday afternoon, I found a small spark in Ashley's eyes when she heard Pink singing on the radio. A song that helped me understand Ashleys' needs and effectively reach out to her. I quickly responded to Ashley's message. I told her that she impacted my life more than she will ever know. I gained an unbelievable amount of confidence as a teacher the day she passed all of her classes. I told her, "Thank you for helping me become a better teacher."