During the first seven months of this school year, I struggled to find a way to motivate a ninth-grade student whom I’ll call Ameer. Ameer is a naturally curious, bright and charismatic young man with limitless potential. However, like many of my students, his grades did not reflect his ability. In my English class, he was frequently off-task, his attention directed at his phone or peers rather than the day’s work.
Unless I was a constant presence by his side, his work simply did not get done.
Ameer’s other teachers faced similar challenges. Collectively, we tried every intervention we could think of: individual meetings, coaching on goal setting and organizational skills, positive reinforcement, punitive measures and calls home. The least principled among us resorted to mild forms of bribery (note to all high school teachers: teenagers love Flamin’ Hot Cheetos).
We all knew that Ameer had the potential to do college-level work, but none of us had succeeded in convincing him that it was worth his effort.
Then, one day, I was approached by a student I’ll call Brianna, a 12th-grader with whom I had no prior relationship. She informed me that she had a free period and asked if she could attend class with Ameer to keep him on task. I agreed before she could finish her sentence.
Each day, Brianna made herself at home in my classroom in the seat next to Ameer. She walked him to class. She made him get his materials out. She asked—insisted—that he complete missing work and revise work that did not reflect his best effort. When he was slow to cooperate, all that it took was a stern look and the implicit threat of her wrath, and Ameer was—as if by magic—back on task.
As the quarter neared its conclusion, Ameer’s grades went from F’s to D’s to C’s. Despite his dramatic improvement, Brianna made it clear that it was not good enough.
When I asked her why she decided to take Ameer under her wing, Brianna replied, “He reminds me of my brother, who is no longer with us.” Suddenly, her mentorship made complete sense. In Ameer, she saw what his teachers saw: a boy for whom a boundless future was ripe for the taking, if only he could summon the will to reach for it. But where Ameer’s teachers failed, Brianna was able to find meaningful success because of what he saw in her: a trusted peer who not only understood but also had lived his reality of being a teenager in today’s public schools.
That reality, especially for Black teenagers in urban centers, is one that teachers like me cannot begin to approximate.
Since our first conversation, Brianna has become one of my staunchest allies. She has continued to adopt other students into a makeshift family. She now mentors a group of nearly a dozen boys who call her Mama, and to whom she refers as her babies. When one of these boys acts out in class or misses a major assignment, Brianna—not their parent—is the first person with whom I speak.
“I don’t want them to make the same mistakes I made in ninth grade,” she explains.
This month, as we pause to reflect upon the tremendous contributions to school climate made by teachers, staff and administrators in school buildings across the state, it behooves us to also acknowledge student leaders like Brianna, whose contributions are equally vital—arguably more so—in cultivating building a culture of excellence.
It is, after all, only when students begin taking ownership of their education and holding one another accountable that schools can truly claim success.