January 12, 2021
Most everyone has heard the story of the Prodigal son from the Bible, where the father celebrates the son that was gone and returned, making the son that never left upset, until the father explains his why. But, as a whole, society rarely celebrates the prodigal anything. We have awards for Honor Roll, Perfect Attendance, Top Readers, Math whizzes, the fastest runner, the best athlete–people who excel right away and straight to the top. Those that don’t succeed right away or first are shunned. As educators, we have a chance, and a responsibility, to change that.
We need to celebrate the Prodigal student.
If you’ve been a teacher for even a single term, you know which one this is. The student that, somewhere along the lines “checks out” mentally. They are absent often. They don’t complete work and rarely, if ever, turn thing in. We invest hours in them. Calling home, tutoring sessions after school or during lunch, allowing extra time on work, providing guided notes–you name it. And then we eventually stop and let them fail, or find their own way.
But what if we didn’t?
What if, when the student engages, even for a fraction of a second, we celebrate them? We could brag about their accomplishment to them with an attaboy, a note, a call home, an email to the principal. And we can repeatedly do this without focusing on the past, especially since they cannot change what already happened, no matter what we say or do. Eventually, with celebrating these successes, they will give us more to celebrate, in most cases, until they cross the finish line and go on to the next class or grade. Even if we only get to celebrate some and they do eventually fail, though, can you imagine the impact of the seed planted with celebrating what they did instead of chastising what they didn’t do?
I started making this my focus in the last couple of years. I was listening to Toby Mac’s song If You Wanna Steal My Show on the radio one day, and it hit me that I didn’t need a stage, my classroom would do just fine to give God the same chance to work through me. (If you haven’t heard the song, check it out here). Then I wrote a simple prayer that is tacked to both my bathroom mirror and my clipboard that holds my agenda at work:
Dear Lord, Today let my words and actions be yours and what you need me to be in the world. Amen.
I read it several times a day. I say it out loud. And I finally started to live it. I have students that will go all term and not work, in spite of calls and texts and encouragement to make progress, then want extensions to finish when they realize that failing is upon them. And I do what I can to make it happen. I have worked beyond the end of my work day to be there for that student. I text every day to check in during the extension. I call when I see they are on something challenging, then send them a video that shows them how to do it if I wasn’t able to catch them and help.
When they turn things in, I send a celebratory text to mom and dad with them in the group text about what they accomplished–another step closer to success! I say. I know not everyone can, or will, take these extra steps, it’s just what I do. But everyone can celebrate those little victories and plant that seed of encouragement. I celebrate every student’s success, but my smile is a little bigger and my heart races just a little faster when it’ the kid I thought I’d lost.
Let them be the kid that gets seen for doing something great. Everything we say and do for our students plants a seed. We hope that it’s in the lessons we teach and they will take the knowledge and skills into their future classes, jobs and lives. But what if it is a seed of hope, pride, accomplishment that is what they really need?
Be that teacher.
Celebrate the Prodigal Student.