Truly Believe That Each and Every student is Capable of Reaching the Highest Level of Learning
Math teacher Chelsea McClellan shares a powerful story of how a struggling student turned around to be able to believe in himself. Ms. McClellan worked with her student Ethan and his mom
Guest Blog Post by Chelsea McClellan @marvelousmcc
“I can’t do this.” “Can I just work by myself?” “I’ll never be able to do this.” “When will I ever use this in real life?” “Can I just take an F?” These were the comments from that kid almost on a daily basis. It’s no wonder as he walked from period to period hunched over, face down in an expression of defeat, even before entering the classroom. Ethan Mulhollen, Bubbles, was the biggest challenge I have ever faced in my 15 year career as a teacher of middle school children. Bubbles is the biggest reward I’ll ever be blessed by for the rest of my service in education.
A New NickName for Ethan
For years, others had referred to him as Eeyore, from Winnie the Pooh, as he walked around almost as if under a dark cloud. “He has infuriated more than one teacher, and with good reason. He can be more than negative, he can be rude and disruptive,” explains his mother. This dejected spirit comes from over 7 years of negative self-talk and repeated failure. Ethan’s mom admits the struggle began in first grade after moving schools and finding that he was well behind his classmates. “He repeated first grade and was able to keep up, but was always very negative about his abilities.” Private tutors, dedicated teachers, and after-school homework clubs were explored, but “the best we could manage was barely passing. The more he fails the more he is positive he IS a failure. As a mother, it was the most painful thing to witness. I see how amazing he is but he seems to go out of his way to hide it from everyone else,” his mother reflects. Ethan remembers a similar experience. “I’ve never really enjoyed school. Starting around 1st grade, I struggled with concepts I should have understood from the get go…I flopped all throughout 1st-6th grades. By far, my biggest enemy is myself. I’m constantly downing myself with I can’t, I can’t or not taking pride in what I do or accomplish…and I don’t even know how to fix it.” Eeyore is what he heard, Eeyore is what he felt, Eeyore is who he became.
The change began during that 7th grade conference. “My english teacher and I had been butting heads for a while at the time so she decided to call a parent teacher conference. This is when my mother realized Mrs. McClellan,” my math teacher, “could be a huge influence on me,” states Ethan. “All of his teachers gathered around a table as I prepared myself to hear what I already knew. He was struggling and making it worse on himself with the attitude problems, and it was also affecting the rest of the class. Ethan turned red, got teary and began to crumple next to me. It was hard to watch him. Mrs. McClellan spoke and defended him in a very motherly way that touched me immediately. Now I was feeling teary. She insisted that although he struggled, it wasn’t that bad. With a little this and a little that he could turn it around. I peeked at Ethan and he was relaxing ever so slightly. I could breath a little bit easier,” remembers his mom. Ethan states, “Mrs. McClellan basically said ‘No. Here’s what we’re going to do.’ This was the start of my reformation.” During this conference, one of the suggestions I made (and that he agreed to) was that instead of stating “I can’t” he would say “I think I can” when reminded with a smile. This is also when I changed his name. He was, from this day forward, Bubbles. Bubbles make people happy as they float through the air. Bubbles do not hunch over; bubbles fly.
“Their relationship is not without it’s own struggles, he pushes her, acts up when frustrated, which is basically always. But he respects her; he appreciates her,” writes Ethan’s mom. Flash forward to this year. I team teach an elective that supports our general education math classes. During one of the days that my partner led, Ethan began to escalate in his diversion tactics to the point of critical mass destruction. I almost never send kids to the office or principal, unless they become a safety concern for themselves or others. If kids are not in our rooms, they are not learning. However, this was becoming explosive, so I calmly asked him to follow me as I exited the room. As we walked down the hallway, I was fuming inside. Enough of this, I thought. It cannot be tolerated, even knowing his struggles; not one more day. As it turns out, one more day was not needed. As we continued down the corridor, he may not have been changing his attitude, but my heart was being changed for him from the inside out. As we entered the office, instead of heading for the principal’s door, I shuffled us into the conference room for a chat. Instead of drilling into him, I simply asked, “what’s up Ethan?” He burst into tears and all the pent up negativity, self-loathing, feelings of failure, even a statement of “I can’t see myself past 20” came pouring out. He assured me that he would never take action because it would hurt his family too much, but it was there inside him, and it scared me into deeper accountability for this young man. Bubbles needed some weapons to combat the negative self-talk and personal demons overwhelming him. I told him how valuable he was, how important he was, and I shared some personal stories and weapons I have been given and use when failure seems to overtake me. Then the bell rang and we both went to our next class.
Ethan (Bubbles) Reflects
“Mrs. McClellan metaphorically slapped me and said man up and get this done and then hugs me. She helped me with whatever I needed and it worked. She took a D/F student and turned him into a B average student. I still struggle heavily on my own pride and going too fast as well as other small things that can be worked out in time. I can’t stress enough about relationships between a teacher and student. The way I see it is there should be a mutual respect. They should be seen for their strengths and rather than point out weaknesses, try and help fix it. I know I still have my demons but Mrs. McClellan was able to break my thick skull and help with some of them. It only takes one step to start a friendship, but that first one is the hardest,” writes Ethan. “Mrs. McClellan’s relationship with Ethan has had such a powerful effect on him, so much more than just his math grade. All of his grades have improved.” He has made the Honor Roll for two consecutive trimesters. “But the most important thing I’ve seen is his attitude. He is so much more positive, helpful and respectful. He proudly tells me about helping teachers after classes. He is the go-to electrician and fix it kid. I’ve always known he is talented and how enormous his heart is. And I think Ethan is finally starting to see it too. We still have a long road ahead, he still struggles with self doubt, he still gives up on himself easily, and he still has a great knack of making teachers crazy with his sarcasm and disdain. But I think we are on the right track, possibly even out of the ditch,” concludes his mother.
Believe In Students
Personally, this journey has forever changed how I view education. Teaching must begin by believing, truly believing that each and every student is capable of reaching the highest level of learning. Once you believe, you are given nuggets of encouragement and moments to drop them into the hearts of our next generation’s difference-makers. That kid is a difference maker. He has made me different. Bubbles has made me fly.