Bringing out the Best in Students

As an early student, I experienced a variety of educational settings. I learned firsthand what conditions create supportive, emotionally stable environments for students to learn in, and which environments stifle their creativity. It’s all about paying attention to the learner, helping them connect to their surroundings, and encouraging them to define themselves by what they ARE instead of what they’re NOT.

When I was a very young child, my parents enrolled me in a parochial school.  The nuns at this Catholic school were very strict. They also had my parents’ permission to paddle me. Then, as I prepared to enter 7th grade, my parents made a seemingly abrupt decision to move me from St. James Catholic School to P.S. (Public School) #68. This sudden shift caused me to question what was happening to me, and transitioning from Catholic to public school was a huge culture shock.

I was suffering from a severe case of “misfitism,” a word I coined to describe the emotional baggage students carry when they think and feel out of place, out of sync, and disconnected at school. Misfitism is a chronic mental state that resides internally in a student’s psyche when they feel stuck and uninspired.

I was still feeling this way when I proceeded to high school. In Buffalo, NY at the time, you could pick where you wanted to go — you were not restricted to only attending a school in your zip code. My parents chose for me to go to McKinley Vocational High School. During the 1980s, each student at McKinley was expected to take vocational trade classes in sheet metal, carpentry, plumbing, and air conditioning.

My first year of high school was terrible. I failed all of the trade classes. My parents thought that since my dad could build anything with his hands, I would follow in his footsteps. Trust me, the genes for constructing are not in my DNA. As if flunking these classes wasn’t enough, I went out for the football team and was cut. I tried out for the basketball team and was also dismissed as it was evident I was no Magic Johnson. Track and Field looked promising, however, when they saw how slow I was, the coaches suggested that maybe cross-country was a better fit. I think they felt sorry for me. I felt sorry for me because I was attempting to force fit my way into a place in which I didn’t belong.

Can you imagine the mental and emotional damage that was happening to me by my first year of high school?

My parents decided to shift me away from that environment where I was underachieving and seemingly unenthused about education. They knew that I had brilliant potential and needed to shift me into a more conducive setting where my talents—like running my mouth!—could be nurtured and appreciated. So, Mom and Dad enrolled me in Bennett High School, which I attended from my sophomore year through my senior year.

It was at Bennett that I met my saving grace in the form of Ms. Rita Lankes, who taught English and became my favorite teacher. She truly understood that education was meant to polish and shape a diamond in the rough. By the time I graduated, I was the senior class president. At Bennett High School, I found my voice. I found my fit. I found where I belonged.

In my first school, I had been telling myself everything I was NOT. “I’m NOT athletic. I’m NOT creative.” When students tell themselves what they’re NOT, they will close their minds to any direction “not” could have taken them. They have told their brains that the potential for success in that situation does not exist. I learned at a young age that once I stopped focusing on what I was not and began to open up to what was working, success would rapidly follow.

I’m sure that my first high school was a GREAT fit for other students. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating the perfect conditions for all learners. What made the difference for me was that my parents paid attention and recognized my disconnection, and then a new teacher helped me define what I AM versus what I am not.