We are getting ready to move, so I was clearing off some shelves in our home and came across a letter of recommendation a former student wrote for me. J is ridiculously smart and creative. She has some significant mental health issues that often made school challenging for her. When she was having a really bad day, I would ask her to journal, write children’s stories, or make powerpoint presentations on random topics which gave her mind something to focus on when she was not able to manage herself or her thoughts. Here is the letter she wrote for me:
“I’ve known Mrs. Deidre Roemer for a year now and I‘ve got to say she has helped a lot in the past from time to time she has always been there when I have had difficult tasks that needed to be done. Mrs. Deidre Roemer has also helped me a lot with my ability to understand some of the projects and homework sheets that I might have needed to catch up on. If it were not for Mrs. Roemer’s generosity and time I wouldn’t be able to write this letter and probably would still be in the 6th grade. Therefore she is my hero and nominee for this award that she should receive. Last year I and Mrs. Roemer had troubling times that we went through together and I must say that I have become a better person since Mrs. Roemer came into my life. Since Mrs. Roemer has left my school and barely has any time to come and visit I‘ve had some troubles paying attention in my classes but sometimes I just have to try and manage without her. She has helped me get my education and carry out with my career pathway, and I think that that is all she needs to do in order to already be #1 in my book, what about yours?
Sincerely and proudly,
A flood of emotions hit me the minute I read it. I had clear memories of our time together and how challenging it was on some days. She helped me to understand real empathy as she was always able to share her perspective on her thoughts even when her mind was somewhere other than school. She had insight into how her brain worked and her own mental health that I found fascinating. She prompted me to start doing a lot of research on brain function and helped me to understand trauma and its effects on the brain years before that was something we all focused on in schools.
When I read the letter the first time, I felt really good about what I had done for J. I read it again and realized where I almost got it right. So much of what she said in the letter was about what I had done for her. I engaged her in school in a way that connected to her and helped her grow. What I did not do for and with her was empower her to take charge of her own learning. I moved into a leadership position in our district at the end of that school year and she struggled. Too much of her education and success was dependent on me and what I was doing for her. What I needed to do was do things with her to empower her to take charge of her own learning. “Mrs. Roemer has left my school and barely has any time to come and visit I‘ve had some troubles paying attention in my classes but sometimes I just have to try and manage without her.” In his book, Innovator’s Mindset, George Couros said, “Engagement is more about what you can do for your students. Empowerment is about helping students to figure out what they can do for themselves.” I definitely engaged J and sometimes empowered her, but not often enough that she could do it when I was not there. Her learning should never have been about me. It should have been about her.
As I thought back on my time with J, I wonder if I had had more time with her if I would have been able to help her move from engagement to empowerment. In his new book, Innovate Inside the Box, George wrote, “ “It’s okay, good even, to look back. Just make sure that you are practicing meaningful reflection, not self-loathing. Reflecting empowers you to move forward and take action instead of getting stuck in that cycle of regret or jumping into the hamster wheel of rushing forward and not even taking the time to look back.” It is important to reflect on that time with J so that I am able to move forward in the work I am doing now. I get to work with teachers and leaders to help them understand how to connect to students, understand them from an empathetic lens, and help them to grow in their abilities to self-advocate and be agents of their own learning.
Where is the leverage point that helps us tips the scale from doing for learners to doing with them? How do we continue to engage in our own reflection and get our learners to do the same in an effort to always get better? It is so important for us to think about the work in terms of iteration and bright spots. The time I almost got it right is a bright spot. What I might have done with more time is take that bright spot and iterate until I could help J move the needle to take the ownership of her own learning. How do we see our learners from an asset based lens to help them leverage what they know about themselves and their own learning to be the point that they feel empowered to take charge? In looking at J from an asset based lens, I could see her brilliance -what she understood about her thoughts and her mental health at age 12 was amazing. Instead of being overwhelmed by what she could not do and her barriers, how do we see her for what she could do and use the bright spot to leverage agency?
I came across this graphic from Tanmay Vora recently which helped me to answer some of those questions that I would have used with her and other learners at that time:
Unfortunately, J left our district, continued to struggle throughout school, and ended up dropping out. Reflecting on her story had helped me to know that we are on the right track with using empathy interviews with all learners from a very young age to understand their perspective and share the process of owning the learning. Some of the questions we ask are; “Tell me about a time when you felt successful in school.” “Tell me about a time school was hard.” “Tell what supports you will need from me when you struggle.” “What advice would you give me about our school?” “If you designed your own school day, what would that be?” Those inquiries help us to know our learners’ bright spots to help them leverage their own success without doing too much of it for them. I am not sure doing things any differently with her in sixth grade could have changed J’s path, but what if it could have?