by Elle Enander, AmeriCorps member on the Comcast NBCUniversal team with Jeremiah E. Burke High School
I’ll admit, I was intimidated by Jack* at the beginning of the school year. Serving in a high school seemed challenging enough, but Jack seemed to embody all of my fears: surly, easily distracted, seemingly unmotivated to do his work, and resistant to help. He was always talking over the teacher, getting up to walk around the class, sometimes walking out and refusing to come back, and rarely taking any of his tests.
Whenever I asked Jack why he had stopped working on his quiz or test, his constant response was “I can’t do it, I don’t know how.” I always pushed back, stressing that he did know what he was doing, he just had to read the questions carefully, but he would often shrug and turn away.
At first I thought Jack's refusal to try in class or to work on quizzes or tests was just laziness, but over time I realized it was more than that; it was performance anxiety and a critical lack of confidence in his abilities and intelligence. His attitude of nonchalance towards his grades was much more a performance to cover up for his fear of failure. After I realized this, I adjusted how I worked with him, encouraging him and constantly reinforcing my belief in his abilities. I asked his teachers how they felt about me working with him during tests or quizzes, never providing answers but helping him break down longer or more difficult problems into more easily digestible pieces. This allowed us to take our time during the test, and I think helped reaffirm his self-confidence when he realized he did in fact know what he was doing.
Jack's newfound belief in himself was even further confirmed when he got back a physics test two weeks ago. After working on the test together, breaking down questions and taking our time to read through them, he finished the test, the first he’s finished all year. Not only did he finish, however, but he got a 102% on it, which is especially impressive when compared to his 14% on the last physics test when he gave up after the first two questions. He tried to act nonchalant about it, but I watched him return to the test several times the rest of the class, flipping through the pages and rereading his answers, a small smile playing on his face.
His success didn’t end here. It has only been two weeks since Jack received this grade, but ever since then he has been much more focused in class, taking notes, volunteering to answer questions on the board, and when calling me over for help, guiding me through the worksheets rather than the other way around. He has even helped other students, showing them where they had made a mistake in their math and explaining why what they had done was incorrect.
My proudest moment, however, was when Jack called me over for help but then looked down at the question and said, "Wait, I know what this is. Nevermind, you can go work with someone else. I got this."
*name has been changed to protect the privacy of the student.