Transformational Change Doesn't Happen Overnight

Eric dropped out of high school with two years left despite the best efforts from his teacher, John Bales. But when all looked bleak, their story would take a different turn.

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Monday, August 10, 2015

When people become educators, many of them talk about effecting transformational change. However, I never quite knew what that meant. I thought transformational teachers must be doing or feeling something different than me. I felt exhausted and overworked. I was struggling to balance the million demands that are put on teachers.

While we made significant gains in the classroom (we had the No. 1 high school math growth in Colorado as students surpassed the state growth median by 35 percent), I still wondered about the lasting impact I would make on my kids.  

That is, until Eric reappeared in my life. I want to share this story about my former student to encourage teachers who are going through similar struggles. 

Eric was a student in my math class, but ultimately, he dropped out of high school. He promised me that he would complete his GED, but he never did. Five years later, I finally was able to reconnect with him—when he told me that he went back to school and was finally getting his diploma. I attended his graduation (see photo above).   

 

John Bales (Colorado '10) implemented some unconventional methods to maximize his students' potential.
John implemented some unconventional methods to maximize his student's potential.

 

Just a few days before he started basic training for the Marines, we sat down to talk. What Eric told me took me by surprise. 

“You were the best teacher I ever had," he said. "I was never good at math before I took your class.”  

“Well, you were a math genius,” I told him. “So how did you get through high school?”

“When I started falling asleep, I would get a white board and finish my work standing up,” he replied.

I knew this strategy pretty well. The first two weeks in my class Eric would come in, put his head on the desk, and fall asleep. You’d think I’d be upset with him, but I wasn’t. I knew from talking to his mom that he was going through a lot at home. 

I knew he had the ability to pass my class, but not if he was asleep the whole period. After mulling over the options, I had a plan. I told him: “I’m going to put a clipboard on your desk and when you start to fall asleep, I’ll point to you. If you really want to pass math, you can stand up and finish your work on the clipboard. I can’t force you to stand up, but I think you can do this.”

From that day on, Eric committed to passing my math class. Without a sound and without anyone else’s knowledge, I would point to Eric as soon as his head touched the desk, and he would stand up and finish his work. 

Our plan was successful. In fact, by the end of the year, he was getting the highest scores in my class. I called his mom to tell her the good news, and I still remember her raising her voice thinking he was in trouble again. When I told her instead that her son was gifted in math, she was elated. 

As mentioned earlier, Eric ended up dropping out after he left my class. So how did he make it back?

 

A close head shot of a young man with short blond hair and a short beard smiling in front of a bookshelf, wearing a black blazer, light blue shirt, and black tie.
John is just as mindful of the impact Eric has made on him.

 

After falling two years behind, he renewed his commitment to graduating and returned to school. He told me how in his math class, he would help tutor the other kids, using many of the methods we worked on together. Sometimes, when the class was confused on a subject, Eric said his teachers would even call on him to help explain the concept to the other students for more clarity.

On his own initiative, he started an informal mentoring program to help other kids who were in danger of dropping out. “A couple of my boys will graduate next year,” he said, smiling. 

Eric taught me what transformational change means. As educators, we believe in our students and communities. Teachers possess an unwavering resolve to address educational inequity and make a difference in children's lives—even if the results may not always be readily visible. In my case, I’m thankful that I could do my part in having a positive impact on Eric’s journey long after he’s left my classroom, as well as for the impact he's had on my growth as an educator. I'm equally inspired by the determination he showed to reach his destination no matter how bleak the situation looked.

After we ate lunch that day, he looked at me and asked, “Hey, I don’t want this to sound weird, but can I write you from boot camp?” 

“Of course,” I replied, “as long as I can write you back.”

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