At the White House Press Correspondent’s Dinner, Jimmy Kimmel made a remark that resonated amongst many. It was not about the President—not about politics—but about his tenth grade history teacher who told Kimmel that “he’d never amount to anything if he didn’t stop screwing around.” Apparently Kimmel was not a cookie cutter, goodie two shoes student; he pushed boundaries, and his teacher, Mr. Mills, responded with the big guns— the “you’re going to be a loser” label. It seems like Kimmel was a challenging student, and his teacher failed to meet the challenge.
In my years of teaching, I have heard many versions of this story told by far too many students whose dreams were dashed by a thoughtless teacher. I taught writing, reading and literature from grade six through college. These students had been told that they would never be a good writer or reader, or they always got the “wrong” meaning from literature. I am a firm believer in making things happen. Everybody can learn to do these skills, but they don’t all learn it the same way. One size does not fit all in the classroom. A teacher who tells a student that he will never amount to anything is WRONG. The teacher’s responsibility is to encourage growth, not to thwart it.
I still don’t understand how any adult could find it reasonable or responsible to tell a kid that he is hopeless. It must be pathetic egotism or incredibly weak teaching skills. I find that it is possible to reach these students who had been told that they don’t conform and won’t succeed. The first step is to try to eradicate the damage done by the demeaning teacher; the second is to find a strategy to enable the student to tackle these tasks and appreciate the work that goes into success. The last part is practice and conference repeatedly until the goal is accomplished. It’s hard work for both the teacher and student, but it’s effective and always amounts to something.
When I taught eighth grade in an affluent Boston suburb, achievement awards were given at a year-end assembly. Each English teacher was asked to submit the names of the students in his/her class that deserved the writing awards. I had two students who finally found their voices as writers after being told they were mediocre. I submitted their names only to be told by the department head that she taught them earlier, and they weren’t good writers. She was WRONG when she failed to teach them, and she was wrong to deny them the recognition they deserved by succeeding in spite of her failings. I had to go to the principal and fight for these two kids. I won that battle. The department head recommended that I not be rehired; I left for a better job, and she is now on the School Committee. She ran unopposed. Scary thought.
As a professor at a local university, I was overwhelmed by the number of students who defined themselves as non-writers, not good readers, and horrible at analyzing literature. These students got the negative label in middle or high school; it stuck and significantly limited how they thought about themselves. I made it clear immediately that I never wanted to hear those words again. Stop the negative talk, and let’s start working on the problems. The process is time intensive and worth every second. It’s what good teachers do.
Standards need to be met, skills need to be learned, and there are multiple options. One person’s “screwing around” is another person’s creative process. Steve Jobs, Richard Feynman, Robin Williams, and John Lennon are non-traditional successes. They did what we should be encouraging all students to do: think critically, use imagination, question authority, push beyond expectations, and push back those who want to suppress, depress or oppress. We want creative, individual thinkers, not compliant, obedient puppets. It’s the teacher’s role to capture the student’s energy, help him harness it and sometimes redirect it. Redirect, not rebuke. Teach, not judge and label.
Mr. Mill’s jab caused a deep wound with significant scarring. So much damage that this successful entertainer needed to clear the air in public, on TV, in front of the President of the United States. How’s that for vindication! Kimmel remained feisty, smart, and strong. He didn’t succumb to belittling. He gives students a battle cry and hope.
I’ve been in a similar, but non-academic, situation to Kimmel’s. In the 25 year hiatus between my teaching jobs, I was a commercial real estate consultant. When I was introduced to the guru of industry, he commented: “Diane, you’ll never make it in this business. You’re not blond. You’re not thin.” Thank God I had the strength to reply, “You won’t make it in long term because you’re short, bald, and have really bad people skills”. I fought fire with fire and didn’t get burned. I not only survived in this cutthroat industry, but also thrived for more than 25 years before I returned to teaching. He crashed and burned.
Like Kimmel, it’s the passionate ones who take calculated risks, color outside the lines, and dare to be different that achieve success. Eat that, Mr. Mills and your minions.