It isn’t every year that I have a “This is why I teach” story, but since I started working with at-risk students last year, I have more than in the first 22 years of teaching. Today’s story affects me more deeply than ANY in my teaching career. This is the epic tale of me and Ashley.
My last year as a classroom teacher, I had Ashley as a student in my sophomore English class. Now Ashley came with the reputation of being difficult, lazy and confrontational. I knew I had to “handle” her. It wasn’t too difficult a task as she rarely stayed at school long enough to make it to my class during the last block of the day. When she did make it to class, she didn’t do much but overall wasn’t too much of a discipline problem. She had a couple of confrontations with other students that I easily managed by having her walk down to the office to cool off. Then came that one fateful day I had been dreading.
As I later found out, Ashley was texting her mother asking her to come and pick her up early. Her mother refused, which set Ashley off. She cursed out loud just as I asked her to get to work and put her phone away. I assumed the outburst was directed at me and made the critical mistake of engaging an emotional student. She marched out of my classroom calling me various and assorted names as I followed her to the office. Needless to say, it was a very low moment in my professional demeanor. Ashley was suspended for the remainder of the school year–it was late May–and did not return to my class.
Fast forward to the next school year when I started my placement as the facilitator for the alternative ed program. As I scanned through the list of students who would be in the program, guess whose name was there? Ashley! My first thought was, “Oh crap!” How was I going to work with this girl in an environment where we would be with each other all day long? I knew I had to maintain my professional attitude and give this girl everything I had. Dang it! She was going to like me and learn!
Her placement in my program was only to be for one semester, her punishment for the outburst at the end of the school year. However, after a few weeks, she realized that she liked being able to work at her own pace and felt she could be more successful than at the regular high school. After she and I discussed how it would work for her, I submitted a request to the committee that Ashley remain with me for the entire school year.
As the year progressed, we worked closely to ensure her success in the online program, and she began to depend on me to listen to what she was going through at home. We were building the trust relationship. She was coming to school regularly and working hard to stay ahead of the curve in her online classes. Mid-year, Ashley’s brother was suspended from the middle school and became part of my program as well. By that point, Ashley was so ingrained in the success of the alt ed program that she became instrumental in helping me keep her brother on task and out of trouble – not an easy task!
In February, things changed for Ashley when she became pregnant. On her way home from the doctor appointment, she asked her mother to stop at PREP because she had to talk to me. She now trusted me and believed that I had her best intentions at heart. Quite a change from less than a year before when she was screaming at me stomping down the hallway from my classroom! We spoke at length about her goals and plans.
Because of her pregnancy and her measured success in my program, the committee decided to keep Ashley at PREP for her senior year. Once she had the baby, I would work with her at home to continue her online classwork. We were going to keep her on the pathway to success and graduation.
Once Ashley returned from having the baby, she got down to work earnestly. She had to complete eight courses as well as take and pass 4 SOLs in order to graduate. I assisted her as much as I could, but math was no match for me. She had to complete geometry and algebra 1 as well as pass the SOLs for them. I worked with one of the counselors to find a math tutor, and in the last few weeks of school, she worked with a tutor, successfully completing both maths. Now she faced the SOLs and she was terrified.
The English and history SOLs were no match for her. She knocked them out on the first attempt. Math was a different story. She only had to pass one to graduate but it was a task that proved to be her Achilles’ heel. Having used up all the allowable attempts the day before graduation, she felt defeated. She and I cried together in my office as I assured her how proud I was of how far she had come from that fateful day in B 122. I convinced her not to give up. She would have two more chances at the test in July, and while she would not walk across the stage at graduation with her peers the next night, she would be a high school graduate by July.
Ashley took that Algebra 1 SOL this morning after working with a math teacher for two days. Guess what? She passed! When the teacher sent me a message saying she had passed but did not know yet, I asked if I could be the one to deliver the good news. He sent her down to my classroom (we are in summer school session), and I told her. She threw her arms around me and nearly passed out. We screamed and cried like two little kids. She knows that I couldn’t be more proud of all she has accomplished.
Now she moves on to finish her CNA training, so she can take her licensing test. And I don’t know anyone who has worked harder than she has to attain her goals. She takes a part of me with her as she goes, but I know she is one who, with her daughter, will continue to be a part of my life for many years.