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About Stephen... and Fresh Starts

Voice of ExperienceThe promise of a successful year is the hope of every student and teacher. Educator Brenda Dyck shares the story of Stephen and ponders the importance of offering a fresh start to every student who enters her classroom.

"Each season is a new beginning, a new way of thinking. Hope is perched on every branch; dreams are whispered in the wind, nature hears our call." --- Jane Dalton, teacher

My childhood memories of beginning a new school year are full of new clothes, new binders and pencils, and, best of all, a new class and teacher. Each year held the promise of a fresh beginning. Gone were the failures of the previous year.

How well I remember the resolutions I made each summer, those private oaths to do better than I had in the past. "This year," I would tell myself, "I will keep up with my work, watch less TV, start my homework earlier, and try to focus better during class."

The year I entered grade 11 was a year of promises made like every other. I knew that unless I made some significant changes in my work habits and my attitude, my chances of passing my math class were slim. I passed, barely, but I know that those beginning of the year resolutions -- and my ability to act on them -- were what got me through math that year. I might have had only a 65 at the end of the course, but my ability to change my work habits and attitudes taught me an unforgettable lesson: I possessed the power within myself to make necessary changes in my life.


Recently, I've been thinking about all those students who return to school each fall. Just like I used to do, many must think about what went wrong in their past school experiences. Some likely contemplate academic and behavioral changes they might make. More sobering, some wonder if change is even possible, especially if their new teachers have been given a "heads up" about their past follies.

Do teachers give each student a chance to begin fresh each year? I'm not so sure. After sitting through my share of report-outs about incoming students, I wonder why teachers are so determined to share the negative information they know about their students. While it is helpful for me to know about my students' academic and health challenges, I would prefer to have the freedom to begin my year with little knowledge about their past mistakes. Some might think this lack of information could put me at a disadvantage, but I would like to look at my students with fresh eyes. I hope to give every one of them the opportunity to make a fresh start.


Thirty years ago, I began my first year of teaching. One of the most memorable aspects of that first year was a little boy in my grade 2 classroom who exhibited severe ADHD characteristics. I had no training in dealing with special needs cases like Stephen, and I spent the year learning by trial and error how to help this eight year old become a successful learner. There were many frustrating moments, but there was something very endearing about that little boy who buzzed haphazardly around my classroom.

More Voices of Experience!

Have you seen these Voice of Experience essays from previous weeks? There you will find many more essays by Brenda Dyck, including:

--- Education Conferences: Goin' It Alone
--- Log On to a Blog
--- Tackling Big Projects: No Wonder Students Get Frustrated
--- Downshifting: Teaching (for Understanding) in a Lower Gear
--- Where Have All the Staff Rooms Gone?
--- Teacher -- Alias Telementor

As the end of the school year approached, I heard the talk. The grade 3 teachers were shuddering at the thought of having Stephen next year. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I would be the best person to loop with Stephen into grade 3. My principal looked at me with disbelief when I made my request to follow Stephen into the next grade, but he agreed to my plan.

I will never forget that day in September when Stephen came to ask why he was in my class again. I looked him square in the eye and I said, "Well Stephen, you're in my class because I asked for you." The little guy peeking out from under a pile of tousled black hair looked stunned. "You did? Why?" he asked. "Because I like you and want to keep working with you," I responded.

Stephen just stared at me. After a few moments, he smiled and wandered back to his seat. We never spoke of it again, but the two of us had many incredible learning breakthroughs that year. I believe those successes were more a result of Stephen knowing that I had put his previous year's mistakes behind him than in any special teaching technique I used.

Or maybe it had more to do with what poet, Langston Hughes so astutely observed: "When people care for you and cry for you, they can straighten out your soul."


Teachers begin each school year with a brief window of opportunity. Many students come into our classes desiring a fresh start and primed to act upon it. Knowing that, we need to be watchful for even the smallest indication that students are looking for help to carry out improvement oaths made during the summer. Our role needs to be one of a cheerleader and a task manager, never a naysayer.

Brenda Dyck teaches at Master's Academy and College in Calgary, Alberta (Canada). In addition to teaching sixth grade social studies, Brenda works with her staff and leads technology integration workshops in the United States and Canada. Her "HotLinks" column is a regular feature in the National Middle School Association's Journal, Middle Ground. Brenda is a teacher-editor for Midlink magazine.

Article by Brenda Dyck
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