How to Unlock Potential

by Melissa on July 5, 2010

Cesar’s Story

It was September in North Las Vegas when I met Cesar for the first time. The heat was so intense that we’d be dripping with sweat at 8 o’clock in the morning.

It was his second time in second grade. The day before school, 3 different teachers came to warn me about him, and the dean of discipline, and the kid had only been at the school for 3 months. He was bigger and faster than the other kids, and he was always getting into trouble, and the other kids just loved him.

I could tell right away, on that very first day, what he was doing. He was just acting out so he’d get in trouble before people would find out that he was “stupid.” The kids would write in their journals every morning for 15 minutes, and Cesar never would. And then one day, I kept him in and asked him why he didn’t write in his journal, and he looked away and said he didn’t know how. I promised him I would teach him how. I could tell by the look on his face that he didn’t believe me.

It was more of the same.  He continued to be resistant to trying anything academic. He teamed up with some fifth graders and jumped a kid outside the bathroom the day the kids found out their reading levels (Cesar’s had stayed the same).

He was suspended when he got caught, and the first day back, I kept him in at recess. I pulled out his records from Kindergarten and 1st grade, and a couple of the really “smart” kids. I put the records in front of him.

“Look at how many days of school you missed the first two years.”

Cesar looked. He had missed so much school.

“Now, look at how many days these kids missed.” I showed him the two top students, who also happened to have almost perfect attendance.

“Yeah. So what?”

“Cesar, think about all of the things we learn in one day. In kindergarten and 1st grade you learn so much every day, too. But in those grades, you’re learning skills that are so, so important, like how to read and write, and if you miss out on that, well, everything keeps on getting harder. And you fall further and further behind.”

I paused. Then I looked him in the eyes, and said, “I want you to think about how many lessons you missed that these kids got.”

“What do you want me to do that for?”

I sighed. “I want you to do that, so that you can finally realize, you’re not stupid.”

He looked down at the floor. I reached out, and grabbed his little hand, and repeated myself one more time. “You’re a very smart little boy. And now that you know this, you’re going to work twice as hard as the other kids in here, because you have to catch up. If you work hard, I promise you that you will.”

When he looked at me again, I saw a tear running down his face. And the expression on his face was a mix of different emotions. I saw fear and disbelief, anger and hope. I know there was hope in my eyes, too, because I was hoping that I had gotten him to believe in himself a little bit. Enough to get him started.

At first, I created a lot of experiences that he was completely capable of doing. He needed to feel successful.

But then, really soon, he started choosing to do the other work, that the rest of the kids were doing, instead of the work I had modified for him. I don’t know how it happened so quickly, but he just started getting better at stuff. It was amazing.

I’m not saying we were walking on easy street. We still had our ups and downs, our good days and bad days. He was a challenge. But we also started to pepper in some successes.

And over the next few months, those successes started to build up.

Then, one day in January, we were doing  an activity, and Cesar started getting all of the answers right. Halfway through, he looked up at me, with a look of surprise on his face, and said, “I’m smart?”

“Yes, you’re smart. I told you.”

Then he got a few more right, and he looked up at me and said, “I’m smart!”

And if you would’ve seen the look on his face, the wonder and joy, well, it would’ve just broken your heart.

It was like, you could just tell, it was the very first time he had ever thought that in his whole life, and I got to see it.

My heart just soared. Cesar believed.

My Inspiration

When I was starting out, student teaching with one of my Master teachers, I remember her talking about a kid we were working at who was really bad at Math. She had transferred from another school, and I was going over her work. I asked what was wrong with the student.

Sarah took off her glasses, rubbed her eyes, and started talking. “She thinks she’s bad at Math. Now, I’m not saying this little girl is ever gonna be an engineer. She most likely will not. And, quite honestly, she is bad at Math.

But, Melissa, no one should think they’re bad at Math when they’re in the third grade.  They should still be excited about school. I’ve seen this happen so many times, where kids have a bad experience with a subject early on, and then they decide they’re bad at that subject and they kind of shut the door, and stop trying, and that’s that.

But I can’t help but wonder, what would happen if we could change their minds? That’s one thing I hope that you’ll always try to do when you have your own class.”

Today’s Tip

I bet you have more than a few stories about something that happened to your child, something that made them think they were bad at something, and you don’t know how to get them to realize they are, or they might be someday.

You keep trying different ways to get them to realize how talented and smart they are. That might even be one of the reasons you visit us, and squeeze reading our stories in among the 10 million other things you do each day.

Keep trying. Remember, we’re here, cheering for you.

You might not figure it out at first, but keep up your good work.

It will happen.

You will figure it out.

It’s kind of crazy when you think about how many things haven’t been created or written or solved, because the person who was supposed to do it decided they weren’t good at it and stopped trying.

We might be able to change the world if we can figure out how to change more minds.

Melissa is the founder of Tandem Teaching and teaches in the inner-city. She blogs weekly about tips parents can implement to enhance their connection with their children and ways to bring out their children’s inherent gifts. Contact her for a private consulting session.


Queenie July 8, 2010 at 1:20 am

Every teacher needs to adopt a curiosity clause. You got curious and realized his problem. Together you found a suitable solution. I love this!
.-= Queenie´s last blog ..Teach Your Four Year Old How To Read Using My Secret Recipe =-.

Melissa July 8, 2010 at 10:53 am

And I love being partners with two teachers who naturally do the same thing. I honestly believe that our ability to “get curious” (as Tracie would say 🙂 ) is a big reason that we were drawn to each other!

Belinda July 13, 2010 at 1:34 pm

I worried about my little boy. In kindergarten the school complained that he couldn’t sit still, he held his pencil incorrectly, he didn’t pass the screening test. I had him tutored privately. He had language coaching. He did better each year but I worried about the quality of his school. I had him tested privately at the start of fourth grade. He was above grade level in everything except handwriting. I stared in bewilderment at the test results for a week.

When he began crying over learning words for the spelling test–he cried every week–I said, “I know I’ve been letting you cry but I didn’t know you are smart. You can’t cry any more about this because you are smart and you can learn the words even if it is hard for you.” He didn’t cry any more and he learned spelling words and he accepted coaching on study habits to make it easy.

By seventh grade he was allowed to use a computer for writing and the handwriting issue faded, too.

Melissa July 19, 2010 at 4:01 pm

You always went above and beyond to figure out what your kids needed, Belinda. That’s why you’re one of the first people I turned to when we started writing the book we’ll be coming out with soon. I’m glad you were able to work with your son to help him realize how smart he is. And look what a success he is today!