This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: Let me tell you a story about a disengaged student who later became a teacher.

I could tell the story of an anonymous child who had multiple diagnoses and was super disengaged in school, but later became a teacher and instructional coach, and then I could do a big reveal at the end — that student was me!! But I’ll skip the drama and tell you upfront. Yes, that student was me.

And honestly, it’s more complicated than that — I don’t know necessarily that this will be an inspiring or uplifting story. It’s not going to be easy for me to tell you, either, which is why I’ve never done it before. I’m not proud of a lot of the things that happened and choices I made and it brings up a lot of complex emotions when I think about what my experience in school was like, particularly as a teenager.  I’m going to talk almost purely about academics here because I think that’s enough of a story in itself.

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Elementary school

Here’s the context. I’m turning 41 in June, so that means I was a kid in the ’80s and graduated from high school in 1995. Like every child, the era that I grew up in had a really profound impact on the way I was educated.

I’m also an only child — not as a conscious choice made by my parents, but that’s how life turned out for our family. I’m also an army brat, so we moved every 2-3 years when my dad would get stationed someplace new.

I was a very difficult child to put into a box and I don’t know that my schools ever really had a chance to get to know me well. I also think schools and parents, and the world in general back then wasn’t really set up to understand kids like me.

A child like me today might be labeled as a highly sensitive child or an empath. Back then the two terms I heard a lot were precocious and strong-willed.

My favorite question was “Why?” I was incredibly curious about everything and liked to make up my own rules. I always got the feeling that adults weren’t quite sure what to make of me, honestly. A lot of them seemed flustered by constant questions and desire to make up my own way of doing things.

The one thing everyone did understand was that I was a good reader. I was reading at a sixth grade level in kindergarten, and was tested and diagnosed as gifted very early on. Now there was no gifted program in my school, and differentiation wasn’t really a thing in the mid-80s, so regardless of the diagnosis, I was still left to recite endless phonics drills with the rest of the class.

Obviously, this was extremely boring for me, and since I was a creative child, I found lots of ways to make my own fun in class, most of which were fairly disruptive. Every progress report my mom saved mentions me talking too much in class and distracting the other kids. Also, I was never a believer in busywork, so if I already knew how to do the assignment, I just wouldn’t do it. What would be the point?

Sometimes I’d help the kids around me instead. I’d think of another way to explain things besides how the teacher said it and teach it to them in whispers. This didn’t work out well, of course, because all my friends would have As on their assignments and my paper would still be blank and get a zero.

Other times I’d create a game where I’d time myself to see how fast I could complete a worksheet. Accuracy did not fit into this game, I would just write something close enough to make it look like the page was completed so I could read a book while the rest of the class finished. This must have been incredibly exasperating to my teachers who knew I had the content mastered, and therefore, they couldn’t in good conscious fail me, yet also couldn’t force me to actually apply myself and put any effort into the work. Let’s just say I was never the teacher’s pet.

The most common solution back then for kids like me was for us to just skip a grade. So that’s what happened to me: I went from first grade to third grade.

As you can imagine, this didn’t solve very many problems, because I was still reading multiple grade levels above my third-grade peers, so I was still bored all the time and the problem of me talking and not doing my work didn’t get any better.

Middle school

Now here’s a bit of twist in the plot. With the focus on my giftedness and what a creative child I was and what a great reader I was, it slipped under the radar that I was by no means gifted in math. In fact, the older I got, the more I struggled.

All those years of just filling out worksheets as quickly as possible meant that I wasn’t memorizing addition or subtraction facts. I wasn’t actually learning anything. And without that basic foundation, the more advanced concepts in upper elementary school were beyond my grasp.

I remember sobbing at the dining room table with my father as he drilled me on multiplication facts with a set of flashcards he made himself. At this point, I was in sixth grade and the rest of the kids had learned the times tables years ago. It had become impossible for me to keep up with the rest of the class as we did five digit multiplication and division problems. My dad would patiently flip through those flashcards over and over and over, and I’d struggle and cry and beg to do something else. It was torture for both of us, but if my father hadn’t made me do it, I probably wouldn’t know my multiplication tables today.

Hate is probably not a strong enough word to describe how I felt about math when I was little. Math pained me. It made no sense. There was only one right answer to every problem and I never knew what it was. Math required attention to detail, and one little mistake made the entire thing WRONG.

Now writing? That was a different story. I had written dozens of books by the time I was 7.  With writing, I had the freedom to be creative, to think of new ways of doing things, to share my ideas and use words. Numbers I hated, but words I loved. Writing them, reading them. Words meant possibility and imagination. In my mind at the time, they could not have been more opposite of math.

We lived in Norway during my middle school years (remember my dad was in the army) and for the first time, I was able to attend a school that had a gifted program. I was pulled out for three hours a day a couple of times a week in sixth grade. I still remember a project in which we designed a utopian society. It was the first time I ever remember being really excited and challenged by anything in school. 

Unfortunately, there was no gifted program for the seventh and eighth grades, so I only received services that one year out of my entire time in K-12 schooling.

High school

When we returned to the U.S., my dad was stationed at Ft. Meade and we moved just north of Washington, DC. I was starting high school, and my rebellious teenage years began. I was at a 2,000 student public school — by far the biggest I’d ever attended, and if there was ever a student who took advantage of the opportunity to be an anonymous face in the hallway, it was me.

Once I realized no one would be able to stop me, I skipped class constantly and generally put forth so little effort that my only decent grades were in the classes I didn’t really have to try in. As I’d gotten older, of course, the rest of my peers had caught up with me in reading, and coasting by in every subject was no longer an option as the curriculum got harder.

I had never learned to work hard or persevere through things that were difficult for me. I assumed I was just bad at math and science and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. After all, I was just good at reading and writing and there was nothing I could do about that, right? Growth mindset was not yet a thing.

My parents were, of course, going crazy trying to figure out how their brilliant daughter was bringing home Cs and Ds. And when I got an F in algebra, they didn’t know what to do. When they spoke to the school counselor about it and mentioned that I’d struggled with math in the past, she suggested having me tested for a disability.

So it was in the ninth grade that I was diagnosed with a learning disability in math. I received accommodations for the first time, but I already hated math so much that it wasn’t going to make much of a difference. I wasn’t interested in trying and having that label actually made me feel like it wouldn’t be worth the effort since there was something just inherently wrong with my brain. In my 14-year-old mind, I now had a justification for my low grades. It was far more important to me to hang out with my friends than to catch up on math, so I kept skipping class, and there wasn’t anything the special ed teacher could do to reach me, either.

In the middle of my sophomore year, my parents decided to pull me out of public school and send me to a tiny Christian school instead. My graduating class there had around 20 people in it. The idea was that I couldn’t get away with skipping class in such a tiny school and the discipline there was much more strict.

As an adult, I recognize the incredible privilege this was and am grateful my parents did this. But I hated it at the time, of course. Having my freedom limited made me more rebellious than I’d been before. I hated the way girls were kept under a much closer watch than the boys: our uniform skirt lengths were measured to ensure no knees were showing, our homecoming dresses had to be tried on for a panel of administrators and approved for modesty prior to the event. It wasn’t even a dance: we had “banquets” because dancing would be inappropriate. Every day, it felt like there was another rule I had to question or “fact” I was taught I needed to push back on.

The academic problems weren’t solved either, because this school was too small to have either a special education or gifted program for me. So even though I was legally entitled to services for both, I was back where I started: sitting in a general education classroom, bored most of the time and completely lost in math.

Books continued to be my escape into another world, and the local library saved me from going crazy. I was still devouring a dozen or more books a week as I’d done as a little girl. Some of them were novels. But our class had gone to Lincoln Theater in DC to see Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in the Sun” and it was the one academic experience of my high school career that had such a strong positive impact on me, I’ve never forgotten it. I began reading the poetry of Nikki Giovanni and Ntozake Change. These women inspired me in powerful ways and I began reading more of everything I could about revolutionaries in both the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement.

And that’s how I survived high school. I read … a lot. I hung out at the mall with my friends and as I grew older, with my boyfriend. Typical teenage stuff. I felt stuck in the quiet suburbs where there was nothing interesting to do, much less anything revolutionary and world-changing. I was basically biding my time, doing whatever it took to slide by in my classes and hoping that my grades in my other subjects would allow me to get into college. Going away to college would mean freedom, finally. I could do whatever I wanted and could take classes that actually interested me.

And the courses that interested me would be things that prepared me to teach. Ironically, all this time I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I don’t know why, given that I never really enjoyed school. I didn’t have lofty dreams of making school better for other kids than it had been for me. I think I just wanted to be in charge of something. I’ve always liked making up my own rules and creating systems and teaching other people’s stuff I know. Teaching just seemed like the natural career path for me and I never considered doing anything else from the time I was five years old.

Somehow, I made it through the remaining years of high school. The highlights of my time were seeing my friend, and getting to assist the first-grade teacher during my free period. I had convinced the principal to let me spend an hour a day in the school’s K-1 classrooms throughout my last two years in high school. I got to play school basically, with real, live actual students under the supervision of one of the most caring, wonderful teachers I’ve ever met. Her name was Mrs. Cernofsky.  She taught me insider teacher secrets like how to put up bulletin board paper without it being a wrinkled mess. Mrs. Cernofsky wrote a recommendation letter for me saying I “had the gift” and would make an incredible teacher myself one day.  

College

My higher GPA during my last two years of high school averaged out with the mess I’d made of my transcript during my freshman and sophomore years, and I was able to apply to college. My first choice was a small women’s college in Maryland which I was ecstatic to have accepted me. It’s called Hood College (named after Margaret Hood), and sadly (from my perspective at least) they had to go co-ed a number of years ago to keep enrollment up. But I had the privilege of living and learning in an all-women environment for the entirety of my college education. A diverse community of young women from all over the world came there and it was a truly special environment.

I enrolled as an Early Childhood Education major. I loved living in the dorms and having the freedom to come and go as I pleased. I loved being able to choose my courses and make my own schedule for the first time. I intentionally selected professors who didn’t factor participation or attendance into their grades so I could continue to skip class if I felt it wasn’t the best use of my time, which was pretty much daily. This system worked for me: my days and nights were free of obligations, other than a part-time job on campus.

I created my own systems for studying and had all the skill sets that are most valuable in college, like being a quick reader, good test-taker, and strong writer. I spent a lot of time studying and truly didn’t mind even when I disliked the subject, because I was able to learn things my way and wasn’t being forced to sit through boring classes. I had no trouble maintaining a 3.8 GPA in college, much to the relief of my parents, who had been deeply afraid that I’d completely stop trying altogether once I was out from under their roof.

Since it was a liberal arts school, I was required to take one math course. Thank God it was only one. I selected some sort of computer-based math course — something based on logic and if/then and algorithms, though it was the 90s version of this which didn’t involve the internet, of course. It was taught by a professor who realized he had a group of math-phobic 18-year-olds and treated us kindly and patiently. He gave me a B in the class and I was thrilled.

I started my teaching methodology courses during my sophomore year of college. Those were the only classes that I attended faithfully. I don’t think I ever skipped a single one. Why would I? In my mind, I’d suffered through 15 years of irrelevant education to finally get someone to tell me how to be a teacher, and I wasn’t going to waste a drop of that precious information.

I remember showing up to my math methods class during that fall semester and the professor having us all sit in groups. He dumped a container of counters on the table between us — the regular red and yellow chips that basically every elementary classroom has now. But I’d never used them before in my life. I was a little nervous about ME of all people learning how to teach math, but I felt confident I’d sufficiently masted K-3 math skills by this point and was going to survive.

He began modeling how to teach the math lesson for us, giving instructions on what to do with the counters. “Make a group of 3. Make another group of 3. Now make another group of 3. How many do you have? 9, right. So what number sentence did you just illustrate?”

Someone in the back called out, “3×3=9″ and my jaw almost hit the floor. My eyes shot down to my manipulatives. 3 groups of 3 … wait, that’s multiplication?? THAT’S what 3×3 means? Multiplication MEANS something?! It’s not just a bunch of facts to memorize! WHAT?!  The hallelujah chorus started playing, unicorns with rainbow tails flitted around the room, etc., etc.

My euphoria was suddenly eclipsed by panic at the realization that I was 19 years old and just figured out what multiplication was. I felt like such an idiot. I guess they weren’t kidding when they told me I had a math learning disability.

And then suddenly, the girl to my right side, “Ohhhhh, I get it! I never realized this before! These counters are great!” The girl across the table nodded in agreement. “I didn’t want to say anything, but that’s the first time I really got it, too. WOW.”

That math methods course changed my life. Or maybe I should say that base ten blocks changed my life. As I traded in 10 ones for a 10 rod, and 10 tens for a 100s block, I realized for the first time what place value and number sense were all about. Multiple digit addition and subtraction made sense beyond a rote process I had memorized. The secret to numbers was unlocked for me. I finally got it.

The rest of my journey as a student went by quickly. I got hired right after graduation and pursued a master’s degree beginning in my second year of teaching. There was an awesome program through Western Maryland College, now called McDaniel College, that trained teachers on our school campus instead of making us go to them, and did so at a fraction of the regular tuition cost . My master’s program in Curriculum and Instruction was the best teaching I’ve ever received in my life — tons of practical experiences and truly useful learning with awesome professors. I think I fell in love just a little bit with the idea of teaching teachers, even back then, because of the quality of that program and how much we learned together.

The take-away

I guess it’s fair to say I didn’t ever enjoy being a student until I was technically an adult. I don’t have a “favorite teacher” story from when I was growing up. And I don’t have a moral to this story.

Mine is not a true against-the-odds story, given my solid middle-class upbringing and supportive, caring parents. And there are some inconvenient truths here that make it hard to turn this into an inspiring story with a neat little bow and clearly defined message.

I suppose the takeaway could be that we need to continue making our schools more student-centered, and provide more choice and autonomy for kids.

Or maybe it’s that we need to teach growth mindset: Kids who learn differently need to know their intelligence isn’t fixed and they can improve even in skills that are difficult for them, and kids who are advanced for their age need to know they shouldn’t expect everything to come easily, so when they suddenly need to work hard on something, they don’t assume there’s no use trying to improve.   

But I also want you to use my story as a reminder that you truly never know what a child’s future is going to be like. Never make the judgment that a student will never amount to anything or will waste their gifts and talents.

That kid in your class who has side conversations all the time and doesn’t pay attention to your directions? That kid could have been me.

That kid who doesn’t try and think they know it all already? That kid could have been me.

That kid who skips class and seems totally disinterested in everything you’re teaching? The one who’s flunking out and doesn’t seem like they’ll ever amount to anything? That kid could have been me, too.

If you had told any of my high school teachers that I’d one day be a teacher myself, then teach other teachers, then create a business where I’m running a podcast and publishing books and speaking across the country about … of all things … my passion for supporting teachers??

I think they’d fall out of their chairs with laughter. It’s actually pretty hilarious if you stop to think about it.

Even my elementary teachers would be amazed that the girl who hated math would one day find it was one of her favorite subjects to teach her own students, and she’d get the math-phobic kids in her class to love it, too, and would even become a math coach at one point to help other teachers have those same “aha” moments about constructing mathematical knowledge.

So when you think about those kids in your classroom (or maybe in your own home) who don’t learn like the others and don’t think like them either … those kids you don’t really understand, the ones who don’t seem super motivated … and you have no clue what to do with them…

Don’t give up on those kids. Don’t assume they won’t amount to anything. You’re planting seeds that will take years to grow. You probably won’t get to see the harvest. And you don’t know what kind of harvest it’s going to be.

Remember when I told you that we took a field trip to the Lincoln Theater in high school to see “A Raisin in the Sun”? That sparked a profound love of history and passion for social justice that’s been there ever since. I still have every book by Nikki Giovanni sitting on my bookshelf today. I promise you my teachers have no idea about that. Knowing myself at age 15, I was probably sullen and petulant on the field trip or distracted by my friends. But I got exactly what I was supposed to get from that learning experience. It changed me even though there was no outward evidence at the time.

Stick with your out-of-the-box students and the kids who hate school. There could be one thing you do that seems minor but is actually a pivotal experience for that child. You might know about it instantly, or later, or never. Keep planting those seeds. It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be worth it.

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Discussion

6 Comments

  1. Bethany

    Hi Angela! I can relate to your story in so many ways. I have a math learning disability, too. I realized many basic concepts for the first time when I was learning how to be a teacher. Even more advanced concepts were illuminated for me when I took my Montessori Elementary Training 2015 – 2017. I had teachers that I loved in elementary school, but middle school and high school were extremely difficult. Anyhow, listening to your podcast brightens my week. It has helped me grow as an educator and hopefully help my students in ways I never thought of. I just wanted to say thank you for sharing your experiences!

    • Angela Watson

      Thank you so much for letting me know you could relate! Sometimes the most helpful thing is just realizing you’re not alone in what you’ve experienced.

  2. Paul

    Wow! Your story is very similar to my story. I did barely enough to get by during my school years, including me undergraduate work. Lecture courses and anything requiring memorization were pure torture. I also did not put any effort to anything that didn’t seem relevant. However, once I became a teacher, this worked to my benefit because I was able to reach those kids who broke the mold as students. I recently retired after 35 years and am hoping to work as an advocate for students and teachers. Thanks for sharing your story. It made me feel great to know that there are other people like me.

    • Angela Watson

      Wow, Paul, I totally know what you mean about not feeling alone now! Thank you for sharing YOUR story.

  3. Emily v Tuckett

    My own Aha moment in my methods courses was in phonics. I realized I had memorized the entire English language. I could read 500 words a minute, and couldn’t sound out a word with 3+ syllables.
    Perhaps stories such as this are more common than we imagine.

    • Angela Watson

      WOW, Emily! That’s a mind-blower! I, too, am curious about whether more people have these stories. I’ve heard from several more teachers on Instagram who had experiences similar to mine with math, but it hadn’t occurred to me that the same thing might be happening with reading.

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