Water Cooler Lessons: Meet people where they are

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Megan was new on the job as a high school English teacher said when she found herself puzzled by what was happening in the classroom.

“I used to get so upset when a student reacted negatively towards me and what I was trying to teach,” she remarked. She started questioning her own abilities.

The advice I learned from a fellow teacher was to not take it personally. She told me you don’t know what they’re going through. You don’t know if they’ve had anything to eat for breakfast, whether they have food, or even if they have a home.

This was the day that transformed my life and my career.”

Megan learned that she needed to break down the barriers first. If she could understand where her high school students have been, she could to take them to where they need to go.

So from that day on, she got to know her students and then created assignments based on their interests – like having them take a favorite song and rewrite it using correct English. Her students were responding.

One day, though, Megan experienced an unexpected reaction when she gave the class a special assignment.”

I asked my students to write about an example of a day that was memorable – that changed their life. They would receive extra credit if they read in front of the class.”

One student, I’ll call Jason, refused. Not understanding why he wouldn’t do it, Megan told him, “It upsets me that you don’t want to try. He replied, “I can’t do this assignment and I can’t tell you why.”

Then to her surprise, he said, “Can I talk to you in the hallway?”

That’s where Jason shared a secret. The most memorable experience of his life happened two years prior when a drunk driver hit the car he, his mother, and his sister were riding in. His mother did not survive and his young sister died in his arms.

He told no one, until now.

Megan listened and gave him the option to do a different assignment. With that barrier down, and with the assistance of a crisis counselor, Jason chose to complete the original assignment. Megan didn’t have him read it out loud in the class and gave him the extra credit for having the courage to open up and share his story.

As a result of her personalized approach to teaching, students, including Jason, became more engaged, dramatically improving both their grades and their attitudes.

Megan discovered something that year that she has applied to both her professional and personal life – that meeting people where they are is the best way to reach them.

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