The graduation finish line


Student artwork at the High School of Language and Innovation.

The path to graduation is different for every student, and so is our approach.
For some kids, we race to keep up with them: they excel in every course, so we look for new opportunities and train teachers to lead advanced courses.
For other kids, it’s a matter of holding their hand: we offer extra tutoring and pair them up with classmates who can support them. We encourage them. Sometimes, these students need a lot of support in 9th and 10th grade, and then turn into great students by 12th grade.
Finally, there are a few kids we drag towards graduation. Often, these are students who are academically ready to enter college, but find ways of failing courses at the last minute. It might be the fear of change and leaving high school forever, or maybe just needing some attention. For example, a student who has passed all required exams and courses might do everything they can to fail their last semester of gym.

I am currently experiencing one such student, Michael.* He passed most of his exams, earned his credits, and made enormous improvements in his English since he began with us in 9th grade.** However, in his senior year, graduation is suddenly looking doubtful as he’s not passing his last few courses.

Recently, Michael stormed out of a class, deeply upset.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I can’t believe what the teacher said to me!” fumed Michael.

“What happened?” I asked. “What did he say?”

Michael practically choked on his words. “He said, ‘I believe in you. I know you can do this.’”

OK– not normally something a student would complain about.

Michael doesn’t believe in himself, so he couldn’t see the teacher as possibly being genuine. Getting upset was also a convenient way for Michael to avoid studying for the exam.

At this point, I am interested in how we can do everything possible to graduate Michael. I’m not interested in “teaching him a lesson” or proving to him that his behavior is egregious. It is, but he can’t hear that right now. If Michael graduates, despite his apparent unwillingness at the moment, he’ll open up space in his life for new opportunities. He’ll be better off.

As Michael ranted and raved about his teacher, I just listened. I didn’t agree or disagree, or try to make him feel better. Michael began to calm down. Finally, he said, “I know you’ll be glad when I’m gone. I cause you a lot of problems.”

I was struck by his statement. And, I realized I really like him.

“I know you might not believe me, Michael, but I like you and I enjoy being your principal.” And it was true. His view of the world is skewed at the moment, but he’s also recently experienced some events that may have triggered his upset. I know that there is greatness in him. I see his sense of humor and charm on his good days. His insightfulness. His courage.

Michael might not graduate this June. It really is his choice. But my staff and I will do everything possible to make sure he does. And however Michael approaches graduation– running, walking, or being dragged across the finish line– is OK with me.

*The names and identifying features of students have been changed.
**The High School of Language and Innovation is a high school for newcomer English Language Learners.

Photo credit: Julie Nariman

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