I scanned the article with only passing interest until I saw his name1. It was one of those ‘home town boy makes good’ features about a California native son, who had fashioned a brilliant business plan to save an area hospital and whose beneficence had significantly impacted his entire community. When I saw the name Sam Davis attached to this wealthy benefactor, I almost fainted.
I had taught Sam Davis!
If Sam had been one of my ‘A’ students, with a quick mind, sharp intellect or driven personality, I would have hardly been surprised. In fact, if Sam had shown academic achievement in any area at all, I would have nodded in agreement at all the accolades showered upon him (and maybe even taken a bit of credit for the upstanding citizen Sam had become). But the truth was quite different. The only thing that ever seemed to interest Sam was recess and lunch on Tuesday when they served hot dogs. You never want to give up hope on your students and their abilities, but with Sam I came precariously close to singing him off. At times, I felt that I would be preparing him for his future if I could teach him to say, “Sir, how would you like your fries?”
But, evidently, I was very wrong. Some time after (barely) graduating high school something changed and Sam became an incredible success story. I am not sure how or why, but it did set me to thinking. While obviously Sam was absorbing more than I gave him credit for, in the end result, I as an educator must pause and reflect on how I missed seeing the talent this student possessed and ask: What does success in school mean and is academic success a teacher’s primary objective?
While there are many lessons to be learned, I would like to share two that struck me as the most compelling.
Firstly, we must constantly remind ourselves that success in life will not necessarily be defined by success in the classroom. This is not meant in any way to diminish the importance of what we do as teachers, but to point out that we are only one piece of what fashions the outstanding citizen of tomorrow. As educators we often become a bit too fixated on the task (or standards) placed before us and we forget that life exists and indeed thrives outside the context of our curricula.
Secondly, we should make a point of seeking out the many ‘Sams’ who are out there and investigate what we could have done during their years in our classrooms to have made them as productive, creative, and motivated as they seem to have become. It should interest us to know what exactly are the ‘other’ skills – which we did not teach – which also contribute to outstanding achievement and also define success? What can we do to engage the kid in the back of the classroom, who might turn out to be the magnate who will someday be called upon to save our community? There might be a ‘Sam’ back there who is set up for failure by a system that does not recognize his unique talents and therefore does nothing to enhance those abilities.
Ultimately, the story of Sam teaches us to broaden our notions of student achievement and to never ignore the wealth of potential found in every pupil. So here’s to you, kid in the back of the class; keep up the great work you do when you leave the classroom. I’m sure you’ll get a kick out of seeing the surprise on my face.
1 The story is completely true. All names and places have been changed to prevent the real Sam from suing me.