By Elizabeth Prior, first year City Year AmeriCorps member on the Bakersville Elementary School Team
The idea of having a ‘Starfish’ student was never something I thought would happen for me. I had heard all these wonderfully inspiring stories of this special student a corps member had bonded with and with whom they had a significant impact, and never did I think I would be able to relate to that with my own individual story. The label of it being a starfish student is after one of City Year’s founding stories about making a difference to an individual and that being what matters.
On my first day serving at Bakersville Elementary School, I walked into a tiny classroom stuffed to the brim with 29 young minds; excited, yes; terrified, definitely! As students were digging through the classroom library before silent reading, one student sat at his desk refusing to read. Better now than never! I grabbed the first book I saw, something about dolphins, waltzed up to him and said, “Why don’t you read the first chapter then tell me all about it.” Clearly seeing I was trying, this student ‘threw me a bone’ by grabbing the book and starting to read. I would later find out that this book was levels below where this student was at and I completely underestimated all he was capable of.
This student has since become my Starfish, but it definitely didn’t happen overnight. For months we argued! He never listened to me, was always talking back, and would leave the room whenever he felt like it. He landed on both my behavior and math focus lists so I was stuck dealing with his attitude even more. I even remember my partner teacher sending me out for a break because he was challenging me so much. Through all this, I couldn’t forget the kid that helped me on the first day; he gave me a purpose to be there. This made me more determined to break down his wall.
I did, I broke down that wall; I just didn’t know I had. I honestly have no idea how we got to this place; I certainly didn’t do anything special. But my starfish has changed me. We talk about things most fourth graders wouldn’t understand and have real conversations about behavior. I tell him that I have high expectations of him because I know he can do it. I have no problem telling him when he was in the wrong, but that we can fix it and make it a learning moment. A student constantly being thrown under the bus and misjudged for his behavior, I find myself incredibly defensive of him, and he knows this. I’ve earned his trust and he mine.
As the year has gone on, I see this student taking more and more responsibility for his actions and having more awareness for his behavior. While this doesn’t always stop him from acting out and misbehaving, I know he is aware of what he is doing. Even if it doesn’t seem like it, I know he listens and processes for he will regularly go apologize to someone without being asked or write a note to me saying he understands how he was in the wrong. While I would love to see him outgrow some of the behaviors, I am proud of him for learning to accept responsibility for his actions and have awareness. In my mind that is the first and more important step towards improvement.