When I was growing up, education was always important to me. On paper, I was not the best student in Middle school and High school but I always loved learning. I developed great relationships with my teachers even when I did not have the best test scores.
I was an analytic and process learner. I had to place the context of the subject in real life in order to retain the material. Building alliances with my teachers was always the starting point. I wanted them to know that I cared about learning and not to count me out.
Middle School Learning Experience
In middle school, I attended a private Catholic school in Manchester, New Hampshire. I had Mrs. Martineau as my 8th-grade social studies teacher. She challenged me and other students. She did not mess around. Most students either loved or hated her. I had her for homeroom and class. I knew Mrs. Martineau in 7th grade because I was part of the talent show team. Mrs. Martineau was in charge of coordinating the show. When I found out I had her for homeroom and for social studies, I was scared. The first day of class, I wanted her to know that I was a hard worker and that I respected her. I struggled at times in class but always put my best effort forward. I always participated to show her I knew the materials. Her quizzes and tests required a lot of memorization. For American history, dates and timelines were important. But memorization without contextualization was very difficult for me. When she assigned projects and essays, I made sure I submitted the work on time and covered all the requirements.
One time I was assigned a project on the Civil War and had to come to school wearing a costume of a doctor. So I used my mother’s sewing machine and fabrics and created a suit jacket made of corduroy materials. Then I learned everything I could about the character. I spent a lot of time researching the role of a doctor during the Civil War. This learning method worked effectively to demonstrate my knowledge. Mrs. Martineau was a confidence builder. I ended up getting a C for her class but I developed a great relationship with her. The experience taught me that, even if a teacher is hard and the class is rigorous, it’s important to build strong alliance with them to show you’re a harder worker and want to succeed in their class. I also learned the importance of showing respect. Respect was earned both ways. As a result of my efforts, Mrs. Martineau included me in many extracurricular activities.
Freshman year High School
In high school, social studies and history were my strong suits. I knew by my freshman year I was going to study political science in college. One of my best experiences in high school was being in Mrs. Monahan's social studies class my freshman year. I was initially placed in a level 2 social studies class. Within the first three weeks, she took me aside and asked me if I wanted to switch to move up to her level 3 class. I accepted the challenge and was very grateful for her encouragement. I excelled in the class and ended up averaging a B. I never had Mrs. Monahan for any other classes—she soon transferred to another school—but I maintained a great relationship with her during her time at my high school. Mrs. Monahan was a great motivator. Every time she saw me in the hallway she would call my name and sing the “Day-o! Day-o!” song.She always checked on me to see how things were going. Her challenging and encouraging me made me feel like I belonged. She, and other teachers whose teaching methods were similar, became my allies for success in high school. A sense of belonging is very important for students to feel welcomed and to be motivated to engage. I’m grateful for what Mrs. Monahan and some of my other teachers did for me during my freshman year.
When I got to high school, I wanted to prove I was a good dancer and was up to challenge anybody, anytime. With hard work and perseverance, I became one of the top dancers at school. At the time my school had about 2200 students. I befriended a teacher named Mrs. Thomas. I asked her if she was interested in being the sponsoring faculty advisor for the dance team. She said yes and invited another teacher to join who was a student teacher at the time. My friend Laura Pula, who was an upperclassman, and I put together promotions for the tryout. More than one hundred students showed up. Mrs. Thomas helped out with logistics. I had great respect from everyone who tried out because Mrs. Thomas was there to encourage me and make sure everything ran smoothly. We ran the dance team for a year and performed at school dances and assemblies. Mrs. Thomas was always there for practice and moral support. It felt good to have a teacher invested in my extracurricular passions. I ended up having her as a teacher for biology sophomore year. I got a B.
The Struggle in Chemistry
Not everything in high school was smooth sailing. I struggled with some science and math classes. My junior year was especially tough. My grades dropped tremendously. I had a chemistry and geometry teachers who were horrible and did not fit my learning styles. I failed half a semester in geometry and failed the entire year for chemistry by two points every semester. Chemistry was not my strong suit. I did not spend the proper amount of time to memorize all the rules and terms in order to pass quizzes and tests. Most of the quizzes and tests were memorization. I should have changed my approach in order to do better. I was too stubborn and continued to use the same methodologies of studying I had success with in the past, but here they did not work for me. I even tried recording some of the terms and playing them back over and over in an attempt to remember them for the tests. It did not work! I was very frustrated and spoke to the chemistry teacher numerous times, saying that I was studying but my quizzes and tests were not showing it. I remember one time I asked to look into why I kept failing her class within two points every quarter. She told me to study harder and that it was my tests and quizzes that were keeping me down. She did not give me anything tangible I could try differently in order to do better. She probably did not believe I was putting the time to study for class.
College Dream Was Crushed
There was a time in class when we were talking about college. I remember saying to my classmates, I was planning to attend Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU, a local 4-year college at the time) for two years and transfer later to a school in Boston or in Washington DC to study political science and diplomacy. She interrupted the conversation and said, “Well Deo, you might have to think about a community college, considering the grades you’re getting in my class. SNHU is very tough to get into.” I was crushed. I knew my grades in her class were bad and had dropped junior year. But to rule out a 4-year college right after high school was very disappointing in myself. Still, she was probably right making that guess, given my performance in her class. What bothered me though was that she was able to dismiss my dream based purely on the reality of my grades in her class, rather than supporting me when I told her I was studying and putting in the effort. I was definitely in the wrong class with the wrong teacher. And, unfortunately, she made me fearful of science.
I was a very atypical student. Also during my junior year, I took an AP history class, with mostly seniors, with a teacher named Mr. Paige. I loved the class. It was a self-driven course. He did not babysit us. He treated us like humans. I felt empowered knowing I could keep up with AP level material and knowing the course had mostly seniors and I was only a junior. I tried transitioning the skills that were making me successful in history to chemistry and math but it did not translate. In history and politics courses, I retained a lot of my information through discussions and listening. In chemistry, I had to find a way to visualize the lesson and relate memorization of the content to certain touch points. But that did not happen. By second semester I already had learning gremlins were destroying my confidence. The gremlins kept telling me I couldn’t do it, to drop a level, or try the same methods and expect a different result. Needless to say, at the end of my junior my overall GPA dropped substantially. My passion for education did not align with my report card. I knew I did not want to stop putting in the effort. I had no choice. School was the only pathway I had for a better future.
Going from a class of 500 to a class of 16
The summer after my junior year I received an amazing opportunity to transfer to Mount Zion Christian School. The school only had 70 high school students at the time, 17 of whom were seniors. Every student had a laptop. I thought that here I could redeem myself. My classmates, on the other hand, took the school for granted. Most of them felt like the teachers were not teaching them anything. A good portion of them went through Christian schools for their education, so Mount Zion was a familiar environment. Their learning experience provided them with the proper foundation to be good students even if they thought they were not learning much. At first, I found Mount Zion School very difficult to adjust to. Students had a lot of accountability. The syllabuses for the classes required more work as a learning deliverable than what I was used to. I stayed focused and worked very hard.
Mrs. Scoggan, my English teacher senior year, was similar to my 8th-grade teacher Mrs. Martineau. Mrs. Scoggan did not play around. Some students hated her and some students loved her. I happened to like her. But since I had just transferred to Mount Zion, I didn’t have a history with her. Regardless, I needed to do well in her class to get into college. Mrs. Scoggan liked to bundle assignments. So we were always reading three books at the time. I learned a lot about dissecting text and analyzing the content from her. We always had rich conversations about the content in class, even when some of my classmates were just BS-ing because they had read the summary from SparkNotes the period before class. I made sure I read everything and was ready to discuss the material in class. I averaged a B/C+ for her class my senior year.
I also had the opportunity to connect further with Mrs. Scoggan through Mount Zion mission trips. I was privileged to be team leader for these trips. We did several outreaches locally and one to Philadelphia where I already had some connections. I had a true alliance with Mrs. Scoggan. I made sure she knew I was a hard worker and wanted to succeed in her class.
Redemption, A Dream Came True
My grades increased substantially at Mount Zion, although I still struggled with some classes. Most of my classmates were college bound. Mrs. Scoggan helped me put together my college letter. I applied to several colleges. My first acceptance was from a school in Wisconsin. I was very excited and proud! My second acceptance was from SNHU, the same school my junior year chemistry teacher at Memorial told me was impossible for me to get into. I was super happy when I saw I was accepted there. I felt encouraged and energized.
I had come a long way. By taking full ownership of my academics, I made my actions reflect my intentions. I knew if I wanted to get accepted to college, I had to work hard for fair consideration. And I did that by focusing first on what I needed to do to improve my grades. Transferring to Mount Zion Christian School was one of the best decisions of my life. I am sure if I stayed at Memorial, my learning gremlins would have taken over since I did not have support and encouragement from the teachers whose courses I was failing.
A Different Student In College
In College, I was a different student. I went from getting Cs and Bs—and sometimes Ds and Fs in Middle School and High School to becoming an Honor and higher Honors student in College. The passion I had for learning was ignited in college. The work ethic I developed my senior year at Mount Zion proved to me I could do what was required and then some. Time management was very important for my learning success. I spent a lot of time reading and dissecting the materials outside of class. I was always participating in class. I ended up going to New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire—the only school in New Hampshire that offered International Relations as a major.
I had great professors with whom I developed great relationships. My freshman year, I had a very difficult English writing teacher named Andrew Morgan. All the freshman had to take two semesters of English writing courses. Professor Morgan did not play around. He was a little harsh for a college professor. His attendance and tardy policy was no joke. I worked very hard in his class. He did not care about memorization and summarizing texts. He cared about analyzing and the writer's voice. It was similar to the analyses my senior year English teacher introduced me to, only deeper. We needed to submit a portfolio by the end of the semester. It was worth half of your grade. I worked very hard on mine and thought I was going to get an A. I ended getting a B- for the portfolio and the class. I was very disappointed. I saw other students who barely put in the effort but got better grades than I did. Over the duration of the class, I developed a relationship with Professor Morgan. It seemed like, at first, he was sizing me up, figuring out what I was all about. I participated in class and showed him respect. I asked questions every time he handed me back my graded work to learn how I could do better.
During spring class selection, I decided I wanted him as my English teacher again. I liked how he challenged me and what I learned from him. In part two of the required English class, I worked super hard. It was good to know we already had an established relationship. I would talk to him after class about the approach I was taking with my writing and he provided me with great feedback. I ended up completing his course with an A-.
During my senior thesis, I selected three faculty members to be part of my advisory board. Strategically, I selected a history teacher, political science teacher and professor Morgan as my English teacher. He was delighted I selected him. He helped me a great deal to contextualize my argument. My thesis counted toward both my International Relations major and my Modern European History major. Collaborating with professor Morgan for my senior thesis brought my college experience full circle. If someone told me on the first day of English class my freshman year that I was going to select him for my second English class, and that one day I would ask him to be part of thesis advisory group, I would have told them they were crazy!!
Take Aways And Reflection
Learning is an art form driven by many movements. The power is in ownership of the process. I came a long way from middle school to high school and to college. Even now I still have certain things I continue to work on every day to improve as a learner. In the beginning, the education system almost took my passion away because the results did not reflect my commitment and work ethic. I was fortunate to change my path during my senior year in high school. This provided me with a chance to redeem and prove myself.
Learning is about taking ownership and developing/having foundation skills. Ownership is one of many non-cognitive skills. Some like to call them soft skills, self-efficacies. Foundation skills are critical thinking, reading, writing and understanding basic math. Some students have developed foundations skills through reinforcement by their family, community, and the schools they attended during their early learning stage. Those foundation skills are instilled through repetitions. I had a dream and goal of one day going to college and had some learning strengths and weaknesses. Some of my foundation and ownership skills were weak. During the second half of my sophomore year, I allowed distractions and my environment pull me away from developing the proper skills I needed to make my dream of attending college a reality. I did not have the kind of reinforcement I needed from some of the teachers of my difficult classes. I did not have the proper structure for seeking help at home. My mother worked two jobs at times and was still struggling with her English. She was there for moral support and enforcing discipline but could not help me with the content of my studies. I also had to spend a lot of my time after school working several jobs to provide for myself. I am thankful that, at the end of my junior year, I recognized the need to take ownership and change my environment in order to have a chance at academic success. I am grateful to Mount Zion School, board chair Nick Dager and headmaster Bob Carter for giving me the second chance I needed to prove to myself that I could get the job done. I am also very grateful for the opportunity to attend New England College and for the relationships I developed there.
Today, we need teachers to motivate and ignite learning, teachers who will guide students through difficulties and never give up on them. We need teachers to help students find different outlets, which allow them to engage and demonstrate their learning in modalities that support their learning style—without compromising foundational skills. When teachers do this, academic redemption is not only possible; it’s probable. And I’m living proof of that.