Sunday, August 15, 2010

"As You Want to See Us"

John Hughes's cult classic, The Breakfast Club, ends beautifully in two ways: First, it employs the magical 80s fist pump.  Try as they may, no member of MTV's Jersey Shore can top it.

Second, the movie closes with a simple letter from the students serving detention to their principal.  The letter reads as follows:
Dear Mr. Vernon, We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong...but we think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us... in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain... and an athlete... and a basket case... a princess... and a criminal.  Does that answer your question?  Sincerely yours, The Breakfast Club
It occurred to me how easy it is for some educators, especially at the start of a school year, to classify students based on first impressions, hearsay, a preliminary assessment, or a review of a learner's past transcripts.  Instead of September being a time of renewal, an opportunity to build upon one's strengths, tap into one's passions, and improve in areas of struggle, it can become the time when teachers set in red ink their diagnoses for the year: good writer; poor problem solver; prodigy; handful; average.

It is normal to have first impressions; it is the job of an educator not to cling to them.  One incredible teacher of mine embodied this principle, and I remain grateful to him to this day.

Charles Ozug taught high school English among a large and seasoned faculty, yet what made him remarkable was his determination not to let bias influence his assessments.  Unlike any teacher I'd had before, he insisted that students submit each assignment using a pseudonym.  Simply put, as he evaluated student work, he didn't want to know whose composition he was analyzing.  Each project was a clean slate, a chance for every student to put her best foot forward despite any previous impressions.  Of course, post-review, pseudonyms were reconciled with the class roster, and Mr. Ozug examined our individual progress.  He saw potential for improvement in all of us and made that known.  I never felt more respected or optimistic as a learner, and the positive trajectory that he set is still paying off today.  I strive to instill in my own students that sense of perpetual opportunity and renewal, all year long, regardless of what feedback they've received prior.

In a twist of fate, fifteen years after my high school graduation, while preparing a lesson plan for my own class using the StoryCorps web site, I came across a recorded conversation by Charles Ozug.  In it, he spoke with his son, and shared the story of how a cardiac arrest left him with permanent brain damage.  Unable to create new memories, Mr. Ozug also lost nearly each memory of ever having taught.

Needless to say, I was deeply saddened to learn that this extraordinary educator cannot recall the interactions he had with his students, nor the impact he had on our lives.  He who masterfully offered each project as a clean slate is now deprived of the gift of remembering.  Moved by this realization, I developed an unprecedented appreciation for memory and the power of recorded words.

Consequently, I decided to write Mr. Ozug a letter, reminding him of the tremendous impact he had on my learning and how I work to pay it forward with my own students today.  That letter remains one of the most meaningful pieces of writing I've composed to date.  I know for a fact I wouldn't have had the courage to write anything like it had he not been my teacher.

Come September, many educators will size up their students early on, forming a sense of who's who from all the evidence they have at bay.  Great educators, though, will archive those conclusions as drafts and present each challenge to students as an opportunity for revelation, free from bias.  Under these conditions, incredible academic and personal growth can occur.

My hope is that more educators will not resort to viewing their students as they want to, "in the simplest terms, and the most convenient definitions."  My hope is that, as often as possible, students experience failure as a chance for recovery and advancement as momentum for further progress.  My hope is that, to the best of my ability, I can emulate Mr. Ozug's example and create positive memories of learning that will last a lifetime.  With the help of my colleagues far and near, and with a foundation set by an extraordinary high school English teacher, I know I have a chance.


  1. "Each project was a clean slate, a chance for every student to put her best foot forward despite any previous impressions."

    This is one of the hardest challenges that educators face. Many times students get labeled early and will wear that badge for way too long. As responsible educators we must continue to see each individual learner as an opportunity for growth and improvement.

    Each assignment should be a new opportunity to shine in the classroom. Many students get bogged down with failing or messing up on an assignment and never get the encouragement that they can move past that mark. I play golf regularly and a friend of mine just picked up the sport last year. He hits a lot of bad shots and get frustrated. I could say he is an "awful golfer" and will never get better, however, this is not the case. I tell him that every shot is a specific assignment. Even if the last shot was awful, forget about it and move on to the present. He has progressed quite well. Last time out he pared the last two holes of our round. We need to emulate the same practice in our classrooms and always approach our students work objectively.

    Great post and I hope all who read this will look at their students differently this school year and approach each assignment as a new opportunity for learning excellence.

  2. Hi Sarah -
    In looking for more information about Mr. Ozug I came across this wonderful entry. Thank you for writing it. May I ask you if you have contact information for him? I'd like to write to him as well. Thanks - Lisa

  3. I was Chuck Ozug's student back in the late 1970's and, like you, recently wrote to him to let him know how important he was to me during my formative years. I'm a college French professor now. Thanks for this post!

    Nancy Virtue

  4. Hi Sarah-- Thanks for writing this. I was also a student of Mr. Ozug's--in the 90s at Falmouth High School. I would love to get in touch with him. Do you happen to have his contact info?