That Kid at the Back! Scholar In Waiting, Now Scholar!

There is always a kid at the proverbial back, that one kid. The one who needs us most for a variety of reasons, maybe social, emotional, academic or human to human.

There’s always one, sometimes, more than one, a lot more. That kid who makes us laugh, maybe shed tears of frustration at the emotional burden. So many to teach, so many needs. How far does love go? Really far.

We are blessed with courage and ability to take on enormous risks and tasks. It comes with our credentials and accompanies empathy, caring and continuous learning. The gifts of art and craft of teaching, reaching diverse children, meeting unique needs, maybe starting with food and clothes. Teachers are most amazing, astonishing in dedication, ability to multi-task, yet focus. Likely lacking, self-care and balance.

Meet Steffen. Teaching a left-behind child to read.

I was recently asked at the last and worst possible moment to write a draft article for publication. Right at the end of my move. Literally the last night. At first I responded I couldn’t, too late, too tired, no time. Then I stopped. I reread these questions, then decided to do it. Sent off a less than stellar unpolished draft. Because I am generally slow and methodical, if my writing needs research, or the converse, half the time my mind races and I likely don’t make any sense, even to me. But these questions. How in the world do we pick just that one student? I was compelled to write.

I once visited a classroom with a most interesting kiddo. He spent much of the day on the floor, rolling around. I asked the teacher how she taught him, what worked. She was a true action researcher, as well as gifted, empathetic teacher. Her answer? No problem. Get that.

This. Think about it. Bet answer pops in really fast. 

The Questions. Here goes:

  1. How long have you been a teacher?
  2. Tell me about a time when you went above and beyond your role as a teacher to help a student find success academically or socially/emotionally. Please be as descriptive as possible!
  3. What about this moment made you proud to be an educator? Why?
  4. Do you still keep in touch with the student? Where are they now?

I did pretty well with numbers 1-3. Today I caught up on 4, not that far behind. Saving the best for last. Today Steffen’s mom, Margot filled me in on question number four details. I was teary, I admit, a long phone call, followed up with photos. We live too far away now.

Meet Steffen. I wrote a book about him in 2005. 

The little guy in the photo is now 22 years old, with a solid job in a big city, and working toward his Masters’ degree next. He plans to get a position abroad, Germany in sight, expert in polymers! Who knew? We did. That’s where humility and faith come in. Grace, too. His mama Margot knew and never gave up.

Look closer at the picture. Steffen is reading to me, less than thrilled, likely at frustration level, I think favorite “Captain Underpants”. Although I’m not close enough to be doing Echo reading by his ear, it looks like I was quietly reading along, not sure, though.

Notice the sensory stuff going on to calm him. In my cabin home office, Andrew big poodle, was always with Steffen, (and outdoor activities). Usually Steffen used him as a pillow when reading, and there were a lot of stuffies. Steffen always needed to hold something, or move. Very tactile-kinesthetic learner. Labels, failing, hated school. Only way was up. Those are my favorite kids to teach.

Servant Leaders teach all kids, not just some. So many success stories. Aha! Voila!

Seems like I’ve been a teacher forever, because I really have. I taught at every conceivable level, one way or another for about forty-eight years. I started as a high school English, speech and drama teacher, then reading instructor for most of my career. At the tail end, I’ve spent a couple years teaching preschool. What a trip. In between this time, I had the opportunity to be a Pre-6th principal as well as a bunch of speaking and consultant titles. For me it’s always about teaching, the breath of life for me.

I think all teachers are servant leaders. Purpose, passion, grace and dignity sum up a teacher. How in the world would we pick one child, that one we made the most enormous difference with? It’s such a daily thing, teachers just do stuff organically, whatever needs to be done. Teachers figure out a way.

I taught a lot of kids outside the schoolhouse, too, including Steffen. I’ve just had a lot of years for miracles to happen.

Questions one through three, maybe four are probably right at your fingertips by now. I hope you share whatever stories are appropriate to share.

Above and beyond my role as Univ. Teacher:

Walk the talk, then talk the walk.

I required all my credential course students to tutor one or more kids in reading. One of the students met Steffen, then a second grader. She knew he needed more and asked me to help out. So I did. I taught Steffen for a number of years at our mountain cabin house and property. My late husband also participated with projects and outdoor activities.

It was supposedly impossible to teach him to read, not so. It just took a lot of patience, outdoor experiences, field trips, maker space type activities, a lot of homemade reading manipulatives and self-selected reading, mostly “Captain Underpants”, as above. Then we made it to “Stone Fox”, “Hatchet”, “Call of the Wild”. And that was that. A reader. And writer.

We also did a lot of library trips. And every reading strategy I could think up, including using colored overlays, (rudimentary Irlen) Brain Gym, making books, etc. Writing, art, science, integrated everything, homework help a couple hours during the week, darn worksheets and spelling lists. A lot of the time, it was all about love. And maybe some luck.

Defining Moments. Steffen’s mom’s letters. Graduation.

Steffen eventually figured out how to use his learning challenges as gifts. His mom, Margot, wrote me a beautiful letter in Oct. ’04, when she was sure Steffen was going to be ok in school and life. Periodically, after moving to Oregon, I still heard from Margot and sometimes Steffen too. Until recently he was on Facebook, so I was pretty up on things.

Receiving the graduation invitation from U.C. Santa Cruz was the ultimate bravo moment for me. That little guy, all grown up recently graduated from a top notch University with Honors, in Chemistry. And he tutored Berkeley students in chemistry! Wrote academic science papers for publication. This young man who couldn’t read or write. Astonishing. The gift of dyslexia, a brilliant mind. This scholar-in-waiting became a true scholar!

Now look closely at the photo of Steffen with me. Of the stacks of teaching pictures I found when moving, this is my favorite. It says “Thank You Rita For Teaching Me To Read! Love, Steffen. And he typed it.

As Margot and I chatted this afternoon about Steffen’s journey from anxious little boy to successful young man of 22, what stood out was their gratitude. I never expected that. For someone to tell me after all these years that Steffen had just told her “It was Rita.” Then Margot added, “It was finding you, Rita.” What do I say to that? No words adequate. Just thank you for the opportunity to make a difference.

Keep in touch!

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Leaving footprints on your reading hearts, Rita.

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