Jonas Kortner: You need to be there

Voices - 23 February 2016

Jonas is part of our 2015 cohort and teaches Physics at One Tree Hill College. In this blog he shares a particular journey with one of his students that taught him a valuable lesson.

I had a group of boys hiding away on the back seats in my science classroom. They wouldn’t do any work. On a good day they’d just sit there and wait for it to be over; at worst they’d throw some paper or find a similar distraction. Their behaviour was so similar that I struggled to tell them apart at first. (I’d study their names and faces at night like a foreign language.)

I worked hard to engage the class. I told stories; I offered wide selections of tasks; I modelled how knowledge of elementary science facts and evidence-based reasoning help real-life decision-making

I wasn’t without success. But I didn’t cut it for the boys. I suppose I tried the wrong things, I tried them poorly, or both. But I didn’t cut it.

Then, on one day far into term three, I observed one of them taking notes in my class. At that point, I’d already won over sufficiently many students in the class that – I’m embarrassed to say – I was cool with the boys as long as they wouldn’t play up. Hence that observation didn’t raise more than an eyebrow with me. I’m not aware of having done anything differently; I’ve still no idea why he made the decision to take notes. But that day he did take notes.

I’m not trying to build an arc of suspense. This is a success story. I am instead trying to say that it took him forever to make that decision; that I didn’t see it coming; and that I almost missed it.

He’d take notes the next day too. He’d try doing the homework. A few days later, he’d fail the end-of-unit test with bells and whistles. When I returned him his test papers, his face told of a well-established routine of disappointment. But I could tell he cared. “I see you tried, bro,” I said. “But you’ve started off too late.”

He kept up taking notes in class. Not a long time into the next unit, a challenging project worth four NCEA credits, he’d start to ask questions, to ask for help. I’d sit down with him to repeat, rephrase, scaffold, explain – and then leave him to it for another of the 32 students in the class. Both of us knew it wasn’t enough. He asked again. I sat down with him again. He’d chase me down at morning tea for help. Both of us found it hard. Both of us appreciated each other’s time. A day before the deadline he’d ask me if he could wag another class to finish his work. We discussed which of his classes that day was the least compromising to miss out on. There was so much good learning in only that conversation already.

He stayed in my classroom for that period. He finished his project, I marked other classes’ test papers, and we talked – about science, our families, our countries. At the end of the day, he walked out of my classroom with four credits. With Merit.

I still don’t know what made him turn it around. In my defence, he doesn’t know either. “Because it was worth credits” was one of the more elaborate answers I got when I asked him and his mates, some of which had had similar success with their projects. I take it; there’s some magic to the first NCEA credits. But I’m not too sure if that’s all to it. Taking notes in my class earlier that year certainly wasn’t worth any.

I still don’t know what made him turn it around. I was just there when he did.

I can’t do the learning for my students. They have to do it themselves. But it doesn’t stop there. In fact, that’s only where it starts. Because – whatever you think we as teachers, educators, communities, or the wider society can or should to engage a child; whatever you think does turn it around for a child – when a child does make the decision to turn it around, you need to be there.

That child’s decision might seem to be random, to come too late, to come at the wrong time. But you need to be there.