Student Progress: Sometimes Its Not the Teacher

Teacher accountability is all the rage.

March 6
Image by lorenabuena via Flickr

I don’t think there is anyone who would argue that teachers should not be accountable for what they do or fail to do, not even me.

The only argument is how to measure what teachers do.

Oh yeah, we also have to define what it is that teachers do.

Part of the problem is that part of what teachers do is not done in the classroom, part of what teachers do affects student development but has nothing to do with academics, and teachers are not the only ones in a school who help kids develop.

For one child in my school the teachers tried and tried, but it was the school secretary who made the difference.

And what a difference it is.

K came to our school three years ago as a hostile, extremely withdrawn and occasionally violent sixth grade girl.

Every day she wore this large black trench coat that she would pull up so that she could be totally hidden by it.

She was mute.

She ignored any teacher who tried to speak to her, no matter how gently.

She ignored any teacher who tried to speak to her, no matter how insistently.

She ignored students who tried to speak to her. If they got too close she would lash out with the sharpened pencil always ready in her hand. More than once a student would get stabbed. K just missed piercing one girl’s eye.

K did not like school.

K especially did not like the school lunchroom, a near toxic blend of cacophonous sounds near manic energy.

K was not at all manic.

K seemed to be an empty shell of a girl.

Our school secretary is a dour, efficient woman who does not tolerate teachers or other fools well.

But she has a heart a mile wide and twice as deep when it comes to kids.

Ann invited K to spend the lunch period in the office with her.  K accepted wordlessly by showing up.

Ann would continue to work while K sat there.

Eventually K began to draw.

#2 Pencils, A Lot of Them

Image by alex.ragone via Flickr

And draw.

And draw.

The first positive thing we learned about K is that she is a talented artist who, with only a #2 pencil, created pictures filled with texture and emotion.

Eventually we heard from K’s father who lives overseas. He told us some of what K had been through and we began to understand why she behaved as she did.

It was not a pretty picture, especially when K eventually drew it sitting at a desk in the office eating lunch with Ann.

K ate lunch with Ann every day.

In 7th grade K travelled with the rest of her class to their different subject teachers. K still wore her trench coat but she didn’t hide in it as much.

And she stopped stabbing people.

Every time I saw K I’d say hello and smile at her.

Eventually she would look up at my face as I did that.

One day I got a crooked, shy smile back.

K ate lunch with Ann every day.

The black trench coat was replaced with a very large sweater.

K continued to communicate with drawings. Sometimes we got what she was saying, usually not.

K ate lunch with Ann every day.

K did very little schoolwork. But she started to give other people that shy, crooked smile.

One day K whispered something to me.

She asked to go to the office to see Ann.

It wasn’t lunchtime, but I let her go. She spent the rest of the day there.

K started talking more.

And more.

She continued to draw, and she continued to eat lunch with Ann every day.

This year K is in 8th grade.

The sweater is gone.

K smiles and talks to anyone who will listen or smile back.

K made a few friends.

And there were even days when K did not eat with Ann because she wanted to be with her friends. She went to the lunchroom.

But most of the time you could find K in the office where she would sit opposite Ann drawing or helping out at odd tasks.

Now K holds her head up high and her bright blue eyes sparkle.

K is confident, relaxed and even kids around a bit.

K went to the prom! And had a good time. I know because she told me.

Last night I went to a retirement dinner for four colleagues. Ann is retiring in a week when our school years ends.

Last night was the first time I saw Ann smile and laugh.

Her work is done.

On Monday K will graduate with the rest of our 8th graders, all of whom have grown tremendously since they came into this school three years ago.

But none has grown and developed as much as K.

Today K will have her last lunch with Ann.

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14 Responses to Student Progress: Sometimes Its Not the Teacher

  1. Harold Shaw says:

    Deven that is a great and powerful story of the difference that a school can make, schools are not just the teachers and many an EdTech, secretary or custodian is the one person who is able to get through to a student.

    Unfortunately, some might ask what were her test scores when she graduated, after all to many outside of your school’s community, that is all she represents a number and a standardized score.

    We need to keep telling these stories of how our school’s do make a difference in a student’s life beyond being a freakin number.

    Thanks Harold

  2. […] At one school, it’s the secretary, not the teachers, who are finally able to reach a student. (Deven Black) […]

  3. This is a very touching story that is also a timely reminder of why teachers and school secretaries do what they do… I find that tensions run high at the end of the school year, and it’s easy to lose sight of what is accomplished on a social and emotional level with students. There is a student who comes to mind that is being raised by his grandfather because there was no one else to take care of him after he was born. He’s 16 now and his grandfather’s health is failing. He has skipped school frequently this year, and it’s been discovered that he skips because he doesn’t want to be away from his grandfather for too long. He’s failed most of his classes this semester because he’s afraid of losing his family. His grandmother is now in a nursing home with dementia setting in and his grandfather has to carry his oxygen with him wherever he goes. This is just one situation, of a plethora of situations, in which the student has personal circumstances that affect his learning. And his concerns are real and legitimate, and his testing results don’t mean shit.

    • Deven Black says:

      Sometimes we forget that students have lives beyond school and priorities that preclude attendance.

      Your student has his priorities in order, but the school does not seem to. How is the school adapting to serve this student in his current situation? How will the school adapt to serve this student when his grandfather is no longer there. THAT is what “student-centered” education is all about.

      There is always time to learn, but there is not always time to spend with the last family one has left. Your student is doing the right thing but, by not focusing on his needs, the school is not.

  4. Michael Josefowicz says:

    A beautiful story beautifully told. Thank you.

  5. Mary Rodger says:

    Thank you for sharing this moving story. More times than not, the things we can’t “measure” matter most. I’m wishing K all the best in her future. It sounds like she has a fighting chance, thanks to some special people at your school. Kudos to all of you.

  6. teachin' says:

    This made me cry. Thank you.

  7. […] He also discusses current events and legislation affecting the field. Some notable posts include Student Progress: Sometimes It’s Not the Teacher, New Mirrors. Less Smoke? and Better Students? Not My […]

  8. Maria Magher says:


    I recently compiled a list of the Top 40 Special Education Blogs, and I
    just wanted to let you know that you made the list! It
    is published online at

    Thanks so much, and if you think your audience would find useful
    information in the list or on the site, please feel free to share the
    link. The blog is just starting up, so we always appreciate a linkback
    as we’re trying to increase readership.

    Thanks again, and have a great day!

    Maria Magher

  9. jim gerl says:


    Congrats on making the Top 40 special education blogs
    Please check out my special education law blog at:



  10. […] über Willkommen-Sein in der Schule (und warum es nicht immer auf die LehrerIn ankommt) im >>Education ob the Plate-Blog (engl.) [Dank an […]

  11. baconpirates says:

    I started a blog chronicling my adventures as a mother and stepmother in my local school system. I’m just getting started, but my first post is about a child whose needs were ignored by everyone:

    My efforts to reach the kid were ignored. Very sad.

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