That one day in third grade
I have had many adventures in my time as a teacher, I refer to them as expeditions. Whether I am literally in the field collecting data, leading an experiment in the laboratory, conducting a professional development workshop, or laughing with students about the silly song we just made up about what we learned (the list goes on!), they are all expeditions. These were times of exploration and investigation with a group of people. Expeditions come in many shapes, sizes, and varieties and are all unique to that space, time, and group of individuals.
This past summer especially, my expedition in South America marked a great milestone for me. Many milestones, actually. My time in the Amazon was my first official field science expedition without my own students and many would argue it was my first time legitimately in the field. Prior to the time in the Amazon, I was on a solo trekking adventure in Peru for two weeks.
During that time, I thought.
Those who know me personally know that I talk.
I think many people were waiting to hear how it went for me to be solo and not necessarily have someone to talk to. Others were waiting to hear of my adventures trying to make friends. Some were waiting to hear how many friends I made and the stories I would be able to weave from the experience. Whatever the expectation, I knew that this would be very different for me and that regardless, I would return a changed person. That alone is enough to fill a series of posts. Let’s get back to the thinking bit.
I had a fair amount of time alone, and I did a lot of thinking. I often reflected on what brought me to each moment of this expedition. I thought about how every expedition in my life was a stepping stone for each moment I was experiencing currently. It wasn’t long before I was visiting my third-grade self in my mind. I think my teachers from third grade through middle school would be embarrassed if they knew what I would be posting about in the next few minutes. While I had okay teachers in my career as a student, I was let down frequently. I was often told I couldn’t do things. As I sat in Peru, thinking about what I HAVE accomplished so far in life and what I planned and dreamed of for the future, I also began thinking of expeditions in my life that stunted my growth and education. That’s how I landed back in third grade. On one particular day. The day that I needed to pass all of these lightning speed multiplication tests in order to be invited to a grade level party at a teacher’s house. You see, the deal was if you passed all of your times tables quizzes on the first try, you were invited to this party. You did NOT want to be the one NOT invited. Now, little Becky was there sitting in her desk, nervous, but ready for the challenge. I have never been one to shy away from a challenge or competition. I like that, I feel like it helps me grow, learn, and gauge myself. On this day, Little Becky did not pass her 8s or 7s times tables quizzes on the first try. Becky was not invited to the party. She was also told at that very instant, in third grade, on the predetermined day that was deemed “you must have all facts memorized” or you are not invited — that she was not good at math. The next sentence was: you will also not be good at science.
You aren’t good at math.
You aren’t good at science.
Do you know where this is going? Maybe — but there’s more. It’s like an infomercial — we are not done here, folks.
To make things worse here, friends, is that my cousin WAS invited to the party and I had the great privilege of being in the car when he was dropped off at this party and later picked up. I do not remember how this affected me then, I do not remember having a particular emotional response, but what transpired during the next few years of my schooling all hinged upon that day.
I was held out of honors courses for the rest of my school years (middle and high school) based on that one day in third grade. I wish I was making that up. I was literally told and later talked about (in front of me, which is pretty bold) that based on my multiplication tests in third grade, and me not having them memorized by a predetermined day that I was not good at math, not good at science, and therefore labeled from that moment as not eligible for honors classes — forever. This all despite being the top scorer in all of my classes, receiving above average scoring on written composition placement tests, the list goes on. It was a debate every year though — she has the grades…but what about that day in third grade? That. One. Day. Seriously? Again, wish I was making it up. I could retell you in great detail each discussion about my academic achievement which caught attention but could never overcome that one day.
One day, in third grade.
I believed even through most of college I was not good at math or science. Fascinated by the subjects? Absolutely — Good at them? No. It was not until a Chemistry professor approached me and began a conversation about my progress, that I realized I AM GOOD AT MATH AND SCIENCE. Although I can tell you I argued with him, at first, that I was good at neither. He pointed things out to me about my academics and lab work that finally made it click; I was good at both subjects, really good. I excelled especially in statistical analysis at the graduate level and professors asked me when I would be pursuing my Ph.D. I laughed it off and told everyone I was going to “just be a teacher”, but maybe after teaching about 10 years or so.
There is so much more I could say here, recount for you, as milestones that continued to prove my “worth” so to speak in the math and science fields, but let’s go ahead and jump to Peru again.
I thought about what brought me here (Peru). I’ll be 35 in a matter of days and I am very lucky with my life’s expeditions but I can’t help but feel like I was robbed of so many opportunities because of that one day in third grade.
I wholeheartedly feel that even if those moments were different, I would still be a teacher and in the world of science — but I feel like I could have accomplished more, and earlier if I had not been told at the ripe age of 8 that I wasn’t good at math and science. I said before, and I truly feel that my teachers from third grade on would probably be embarrassed to see the impact that one day had on me. Hopefully a bit proud of where I am, but hopefully also reflective of their practices, judgments, and words to and about students, especially when the student is present.
There is no day, in any grade level that is a magic day that every student will understand a given concept, which will then determine their ability or aptitude for a subject or skill. There, I said it. We are all, even in adulthood, on a learning continuum.
This mindset is slowly (really slowly) changing, especially in the world of math — and I am hoping this story helps change minds for the greater cause.
I write this to say that it could have kept me from even being a science teacher in the first place. It could have had a bigger and more catastrophic impact on me and I shudder to think of others like me that perhaps never have overcome this judgment so early in life. It is a part of my story and part of what motivates my work with students and passion for empowering students in all subjects — but how many students have we failed along the way?
All of this clouded my thoughts while on expedition but through it all, I was and remain incredibly grateful that I finally overcame this judgment and am beginning to really flourish in the field of education, science, math, and as a leader.
Your words as an educator matter; will you build or break your students?
Will tomorrow, that one day in (insert grade level), be a day a future adult, your former student, boasts about as monumental in positively influencing their life?
Make it so.