“It’s not about the miles, it’s about the inches.” A simple quote said to us corps members by the Executive Director of City Year Rhode Island, Jennie Johnson, at our Mid Year Summit. These words, as well as many others she has bestowed upon us, resonated with me. Here at City Year our work is hard, which I’m sure in no way differs from any of the other fabulous Americorps programs in the community. When working with students, rather difficult students, it can be impossible to see the impact you’re making when you’re looking for large improvements. What keeps me going are the small victories, not the grandiose stories of turn around success. The reality of our service is that it’s unlikely to turn a severely misbehaved and unfocused student that reads 3-4 grades below grade level into an honor roll student in ten short months. However, I’ve seen first hand that you can make an even greater impact that will last a lifetime.
I have a student; lets call him Antonio. He is one of my favorite students to work with. Not because he makes my job easy, or makes it enjoyable for that matter, but because he demands my constant attention and keeps me on my toes. As an 8th grader at a 6th grade reading level, Antonio started off the school year unfocused, lazy, and very quiet. He’d often come to class, put his head down, and sleep for the majority of the period, often times going unnoticed by my partner teacher and myself. As we started working together he became more pleasant often socializing with other students and myself. Although I enjoyed this “new Antonio”, and the constant jokes we spit at one another back and forth, his schoolwork suffered just the same. It was literally like pulling teeth to get this kid to write his name on his paper, let alone complete an assignment. Every single day I “reminded” him, in a little more strict than warm manner, to take out a pencil, do the “Do Now” activity, follow along as we read, or answer the questions on the worksheet. For the first month or two I saw absolutely no improvement in Antonio’s work ethic with no intrinsic motivation to learn or succeed. And then there was the constant complaining EVERYTIME I made a request of him. Spoiler alert: that never changes, he still complains daily.
Fast-forward seven months later, Antonio begs to work with me literally everyday. “Miss, are you going to take our group out of class? I’m not going work unless it’s with you.” Antonio completes more of his assignments, loves to read aloud, and answers my comprehension check questions while in small group. He has gone up to a 7th grade reading level according to the STAR assessment, a standardized test for all grade levels. Although I am thrilled to see improvement, Antonio has presented me with yet another challenge: getting him to be on task and engaged in a whole class setting, an environment where he’ll be for the next eight years of high school and college. He’s eager to learn whenever I’m giving him individual attention, but that’s not going to cut it in his future educational settings. The lack of effort he puts forth if I don’t prompt him is saddening. If I looked at his current behavior during whole class instruction as an indicator of the impact I’m having, I would have thrown up my hands and given up.
My ultimate goal for Antonio is for him to be a model student: working well without being prompted to, leading his peers, taking initiative and responsibility of his own learning, and reading well above benchmark. Will he get there by the end of my service year? Of course not, unless there’s a miracle. But with the work we do, those inches of growth are all that matters. Although it’s a daily battle, the fact that Antonio even wants to open the novel, let alone read it with me and the rest of our small group is a huge deal!
These inches of growth, while they may be insignificant to others, are meaningful beyond belief to me. They are proof that your hours of lesson planning, traveling on RIPTA before sunrise and after sunset, your 10-12 hour days (everyday), and your constant smile even on your worse days are all worth it. These are the inches that gradually turn into feet. These feet may turn into yards. And my hope is that one day, my current work with Antonio, will flourish and grow into miles, miles of nothing but success for him. I’m doing my part, day in and day out. Us corps members are high-strung idealists who challenge cynicism wherever we find it. I believe that Antonio will be truly amazing one day, even if others don’t.
My promise to him is that I’ll never give up on him, no matter how frustrated he makes me. Even if I have to repeat the same instructions to him every single day, I’m there. He’s seen that, and his inches are a sign that it’s working! If my journey with Antonio was seen as a race, we wouldn’t be in first place if you’re looking from the finish line. But take notice of what’s happening during the stretch between the start and finish: the amount of times he stopped but kept going, the way he’s improved his running form, the few times he encouraged his peers to keep running along with him, and the larger strides he’s slowly beginning to take. You’d see exactly what I see: Antonio, my champion.