School Climate & Safety Opinion

Failing Sam

By Jessica Shyu — September 10, 2008 3 min read

Giving an emotional disturbed student the learning he needs.

It’s one thing to teach kids. It’s a whole other thing to make sure what we’re teaching is of high quality and that it’s being taught well. As a program director for Teach for America, I constantly run up against this issue as I work with first- and second-year teachers.


I often find myself telling stories from the time when I taught at an Indian reservation school in New Mexico—stories that I think are both inspiring and heartbreaking. Most often I find myself telling stories about “Sam.”

His reputation preceded him. A week before he even arrived at school, the teachers were eagerly sharing horror stories they’d heard about the 12-year-old. It was a mix of rumor and truth. They told me about his alcohol problem. They told me about how he doused his cousin with gasoline and lit her on fire. They told me I would be lucky to get him to sit down and not hurt anyone.

But I was idealistic and optimistic, and I was eager to make miracles. I was going to work so hard with this student that he was going to love me. But, as with all things, it wasn’t quite so easy. Though I found that he was actually quite intelligent, Sam had been through heartbreaking abuse and trauma—and this was manifested in his behavior. He wouldn’t sit down in class, he wouldn’t stop hurting other students, and he wouldn’t be quiet. Soon, no one in my class was able to pay attention, let alone learn anything.

But I persevered. I set up a behavior plan that worked for Sam. I gave him inspiring talks and visited him at the student dorm where he lived. It started to have an impact. Some days, he even would sit quietly in the classroom and fill in basic math worksheets. They were below his level, but, hey, he was working. The other students were working. I felt like a great teacher.

My satisfaction with “nice and quiet” lasted for about a week and a half. Then my conscience kicked in. I had to ask myself one of the hardest questions of being a teacher: To what extent was Sam actually learning?

The truth is, Sam was filling out worksheets on addition and subtraction—skills he had learned six years ago. I was so terrified of disrupting the peace, I didn’t dare teach him anything more challenging, lest he feel confused and frustrated and lash out. And not only was he working on 1st grade worksheets, he wasn’t even filling in most of the answers correctly. I was so thrilled by the quiet, I avoided confronting him with corrections—just as all his other teachers had done.

I realized I was failing Sam.

It took a lot more time on my part, but it was my responsibility to figure out how to properly instruct Sam on basic skills so that he could strengthen his math foundation. I also had to teach him more appropriately rigorous material that he should have learned long before, such as multiplication and word-problem solving skills.

This didn’t happen overnight. It required investing him in a “Big Goal” designed just for him and explaining and making sure he understood why he needed to solidify his skills and how that was going to help him in the future. It also involved pulling him out to the hallway to show him how to correct and check his answers, and going to the dormitory at night to work with him.

Sam ended up getting expelled from the school. The day he was led out with handcuffs, I was heartbroken. In a mere three months, he had made great gains. He could do multi-digit addition and subtraction on his own and he had started to memorize multiplication tables. He could read and draw graphs. He could write a five-sentence paragraph. I had done my job. He had learned. And that’s something no one can expel from him.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1990 edition of Teacher


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