Written by Kaia Duke, AmeriCorps member serving on the Lamar Advertising Company Team at Melrose Elementary School

This is PITW #9 (bing!): Create Your Own Environment for Success. Don’t let the unknown standards of others limit the possibility for your success.

We’ve been with our students since August. For the past nine months, I’ve seen one of my students get in trouble almost every day for the smallest things. Whether he is talking out of turn, falling out of his seat, or missing a textbook, something is always going wrong.  

Though he is constantly moving and rarely sits still, he cares a great deal about the accuracy of his work. However, this requires sitting next to him and constant redirection from being distracted. Pronouncing and spelling words properly, using the answering strategies we’ve practiced, and simply knowing that he’s done something right is important. The pencil erasings that litter his desk and occasional holes rubbed through the paper are a testimony of his efforts.

So, one day when I had a substitute, I took the opportunity to pull him from what would undoubtedly prove to be a more distracting environment than normal. Together we were able to finish his reading assignment. Reading aloud, sounding out of words, and looking to his peer and myself for help only proved how much he valued accuracy and that here, at our table in the library, we had created his environment for success. The afternoon solidified my belief that his care and diligence, which are frequently overshadowed by his classroom behavior, are indeed genuine.

I relished the time we spent that afternoon in the library. Having the opportunity to see him correct himself without prompting and work through questions about which he was initially unexcited was uplifting. One moment in particular stood out as we completed our work. Mrs. Scott, my partner teacher, and I constantly remind them of the strategies we’ve learned and nitpick. As he began writing the second answer, he paused and looked up. “Mrs. Scott says we’ve got to start with a capital letter. Is this how we restate the question?” he asked as he erased the lower case letter he’d first written down. By the end of the worksheet, there were fewer erasings and more confident attempts at answers, though their endings were never quite free of the raised-question-like intonation.

I share this recent moment to say that we may be nearing the end of our ten months of service, but even in month number nine, these students present you with unanticipated glimpses of what they’re capable. When he noticed I was using his pencil to help the other student, he yanked it from my hand. I turned slowly to look at him and ask why he did that. Giving him a moment to analyze what he’d done and hear that I had carried his pencil when we changed tables and then used it to guide the other student in her work, he looked at me softly and handed the pencil back. “No, no, take it!” he said, “I want to ask for it back politely.” Thank goodness I was seated. “Ms. Kaia, may I please have my pencil back?” As I handed back the pencil, I remembered all the times I’ve had my kids repeat requests politely to both adults and their peers. Creating an environment for success means consistency and consideration of what each student needs.

After nine months of roller coaster emotions, student attempts and successes in the classroom, and finding a niche on our school team, I can’t say that I come to the end of the year disheartened and ready to go. Quite the opposite. I will end this year content in the fact that the very students that I have had the privilege to work with are the same ones that have created an environment in which my idealism can flourish.

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