Thursday, December 27, 2007

Engaging a Distant Teenager With Extended Hours

What a wonderful story. A part of this also seems to be a result of the school's support for teachers. This could benefit more students if our public school teachers were also afforded similar experiences. -Patricia

December 26, 2007

THE PROBLEM When Andrew Coburn, a teacher at the Met High Schools in Providence, R.I., met his new ninth grader, a Cambodian immigrant, she spoke fluent English but read at a third-grade level. Her slender frame seemed to radiate depression. School, Mr. Coburn thought, seemed a place she wanted to get away from as soon as she could. Even if she lasted for four years of high school, she would have nine years of academic ground to cover. But first the teacher needed to get her to stay in school.

THE SOLUTION Mr. Coburn, who has taught for eight years at the Met, a network of six small public high schools that serve primarily a low-income and minority population, said many of the students lack academic skills, and just as many hate school. But figuring out how to help has to be tackled student by student.

This ninth grader had come to the United States as a baby with her mother and five siblings. “My sisters and I take care of our brothers,” she said in class one day. “My mother’s not really there. Let’s just say, she’s not really mother material.”

The Met schools encourage strong relationships between teachers and students, on the theory that these can help underachieving students succeed. Mr. Coburn, like all the teachers, has the same students from ninth grade until graduation.

Mr. Coburn’s first step was to make sure that within the first 30 minutes of each day, he had either a brief conversation with the girl or a look at her work. She would often answer in angry monosyllables. He didn’t give up. He included her in the jokes, plans and reviews that occurred during the group morning meeting, even if she seemed unwilling to contribute and uninterested in interacting with other students. She remained angry and tuned out. She often kept her iPod in her ear, as if to let everyone know she did not want to talk.

By early spring, Mr. Coburn realized this wasn’t enough. The girl would not budge.

“At some point, when nothing was changing,” he said, “I knew I had to do more to connect to her. I discussed it with the other teachers. Together we decided I’d have to cover her with love. I started to talk to her in the evenings. I talked to her like I was a teenage girl — 11 at night on the phone I was like: ‘Your aunt said that to you? She did what?’ I had to build trust with her.”

Although it may seem an unusual approach for a teacher, it fit in with the philosophy of the Met schools. Still, Mr. Coburn said, it wasn’t always convenient for him to make time for those calls. He’s married with young children. After he and his wife put their kids to bed, he would grade papers and call his student while his wife sat nearby reading.

The calls seemed to work. Within a few weeks, Mr. Coburn felt sure the girl would return to school each day. Although he continued the calls in her sophomore year, he began focusing more on improving her academic skills. He decided that a key was to persuade her to learn more about her birth country, which she never seemed to want to talk about but which he thought was something she could connect to.

“Cambodia just seemed like this big closed door for her,” Mr. Coburn said. “I felt that her reluctance to talk about Cambodia was part of her problem. Her curiosity and longing to know about her birth country would be part of the solution.”

So during her junior year, Mr. Coburn suggested that for her senior project, a graduation requirement, she should plan her first trip to Cambodia. He hoped her curiosity about Cambodia offered a path to her mind.

In the spring of her junior year, the girl studied a map and read about Cambodia. In the fall of her senior year, she tracked down an aunt who still lived there and arranged to stay with her on a visit. She called a travel agent to find out about flights, and she made plans to raise money for the trip by running in the annual all-schools marathon. She raised $1,300 in pledges, and began running with Mr. Coburn in preparation. The running also transformed her mood, the teacher said. Three months after she ran her first mile, she was running nearly every day, and inexplicably suddenly reading almost every day as well.

By her senior year, at age 18, she read at a ninth-grade level. “She’s not able to write a 15-page research paper,” Mr. Coburn said. “But now she’s willing to try. She wants to go to college. Once they trust you, they open up to you. And that’s when the work really begins.”

Susan Engel is a psychology professor and director of the teaching program at Williams College. Contact her at if you have a teaching problem to share.

1 comment:

  1. If you include all your work related tasks, how many hours are you working?

    Do you think that it's possible for teachers to achieve work-life balance? How?