Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Cam's Smile

Several months ago, I wrote a blog post called "I Give Up on Kids of Today".  An excerpt from that post:

"This generation is a lost cause.  They're lazy now, you know.  They don't work as hard as we did, as our parents did.  They're entitled, don't you think?  Never done an honest day's work.  Not like we did when we were young.  Kids have it easy these days.  Everything is served up to them on a platter, and they just sit there and it all comes to them.  They don't respect their elders, they don't respect anyone, never mind us educators.  This "right now" generation isn't worth our time.  I give up!  I just hope the next generation is better."

Are comments like these familiar to you?  Do you ever have friends who are not in education ask you "how you do it?"?  Do you ever go to get your haircut, and when you tell people that you work in a school, you are subjected to an invective so intense that you are tempted just to go with the crew cut just to get out of there?  Well, my question to you is--as an educator, do you do the right thing?  Do you let society know the truth about students of today?

Today, I am here to let society know the truth about students today, and one student in particular.  His name is Cameron (and yes, that is his real name, because he wants me to use it), and he exemplifies the truth about students today.

When Cameron came to our school in Grade 8, he personified the phrase "disenfranchised learner".  He did not like school.  He hated going to his classes, and demonstrated this each day by his abysmal attendance.  When Cameron did show up, his marks in his classes were poor, he would never bring PE strip, and he would resist any extra help or support that teachers or support workers would try to give him.  He had a frown on his face that you could see from a mile away.  He pulled his hood over his head, and would snarl when asked to take it off.   He was ornery, and just wanted everyone to leave him alone.  The teachers would chase him around the building trying to get him to come to class.  He was suspended.  Cam had given up on school, and our school was about ready to give up on Cam.  He had washed his hands of us, and at the end of Grade 8, we were scrubbing up and getting ready to wash our hands of him.  We could have, and some might say we SHOULD have washed our hands of Cameron.  Some would say "He wasn't putting the effort forward, why should we?".

After an introduction to the concepts of the Professional Learning Community in October of 2006, our school committed to a number of new initiatives, the first being a part of collaborative teams on the basis of common subject areas. These collaborative teams were given time during the instructional day to work together to establish team norms, emphasized learning outcomes, and work interdependently to examine curricular, instructional and assessment practices that would enable and ensure student success.  In concert with collaborative time, we adopted an Academic Intervention program that moved from being invitational in nature to students who were not being very successful to highly directive for those who were failing.  We then began to re-vamp a number of our assessment policies and practices in the school so assessments would inform learning and instruction and be representative of student learning.  Embracing the concepts around the Professional Learning Community was a huge undertaking that has been fraught with potholes and forks in the road.  But after 5 years, we are seeing changes at the school.

At the office, our discipline referrals have gone down.  We have fewer parent complaints.  There are very few issues at PAC meetings. Students seem to be happier.  At the classroom level, we have seen a consistent decrease in failure rates in our core courses--this is across the board, and consistent over the last four years.  We pick up students who are not succeeding quicker and more efficiently, and the mechanisms that we have in place to help these students are focused one one thing--making not doing the work and failure the most difficult options at our school.

We are far from perfect.  We are not there yet.  We are not a Professional Learning Community as so often is claimed.  But we are continuing along that PLC journey, and we are encouraged by the results that we have seen.  Yet for every bit of data that we have that indicates success for our school, I would trade all of it for one thing.


We didn't give up on Cam, and Cam never gave up on us.  We didn't let Cam walk away from us.  We connected him with key adults in the building who made sure they did things like say hello to him EVERY day.  Like ask him how he was doing EVERY day.  We made sure we kept close tabs on him so that we would find out very early when he was struggling in his classes, and then we made the interventions directive for him--we required him to be there.  We hounded him about his attendance endlessly.  When he was lingering in the halls, our support workers would physically walk him to class.  We killed him with kindness.  We made Cam sick of us.

And then something changed.  Cam started going to class on his own--he didn't need an escort.  His attendance got better and better, and eventually a non-issue.  He started being one of the first ones to his class.  He made connections with his teachers; they were nice to him, and he was nice to them.  When he got behind, he was sent to AI, and he WENT to AI.  But then that changed too, because he was staying caught up in his classes.  He was passing.  He became smiley in the hallways, and started saying hello to all of the teachers, to the custodians, to the secretaries, to the cafeteria workers.  He said hello before they said hello to him.  Everyone knew Cam.  Everyone knows Cam.

Over the five years that I have known Cam, he and I have developed a unique bond.  Cam wears a lot of cool hats, typically those of major league baseball teams.  I am a Red Sox fan, and one of his favourite hats is his Yankees hat.  As our school has a 'no headgear' expectation, and Cam sometimes forgets to take his hat off, he will often hear me hollering "Cam!  Take that ugly Yankees hat off!", and he will turn and look at me with the biggest smile, the smile that was never there in Grade 8.  I love seeing that smile every day.

In March of this year, Cam came to my office and asked my advice.  He wanted to apply to be the valedictorian for the School District #73 First Nations Graduation Ceremony.  He wanted to know if I thought that would be a good idea and whether he could do it or not.  I told him absolutely.  Go for it.  And that I would endorse him 1000%. 

Two months later (which was yesterday in fact) I heard his voice in the outer office asking where I was.  My heart started to beat a little faster, and I began to smile.  The door opened a crack, and in the typical Cam fashion that I like so much, he said "Hey Mr. Birk!  Mrs. Draney and some other chick told me that I am the First Nations Valedictorian!".

Cam had given up on school, and our school was about ready to give up on Cam back in Grade 8.  He had washed his hands of us, and at the end of Grade 8, we were scrubbing up and getting ready to wash our hands of him.  We could have washed our hands of Cameron.  But we didn't give up on him, and thankfully he didn't give up on us.  

I am so glad he didn't give up on us.

In times of frenetic schedules, strained budgets, societal ills, bureaucracy and red tape, it is easy to dwell on what could have been or what should be.  But we need to remember that there are success stories everywhere, in each of our schools.   Furthermore, we need to remember that there are so many things that we can do to help students be successful.  I am proud of what our school has become in terms of the way that it approaches students.  I am proud of our staff.  And I am so proud of our students and our community.

But as proud as I am of all the things that I have been fortunate enough to witness and hopefully to have been some small part of in my career, I can think of none that have brought me more satisfaction than the day that Cam told me he was named First Nations Valedictorian for the Class of 2011.

I will always remember Cam's smile.
The 2011 First Nations Valedictorian and his "Ugly Yankees Hat"

PS.  I would like to completely acknowledge our First Nations Education Workers (MJ, Flora, Diyame, and many others), our Senior Basketball Coach, Coach K, Lisa Yamaoka, and all of the other teachers that I know have sincerely made a difference for Cam. I know that he would want me to acknowledge you too.


  1. This is the home run!! We have to see it through with kids and coach them around all the bases of their education and gradution. Congratulations to Cam and his "coaches".

  2. Another inspiring story that reminds me of the importance of fostering relationships!

    Congratulations to you Cale, your First Nations Workers and, most importantly, to Cam!

  3. I often wonder what will become of my students when they're out of my protective, caring, high expectation clutches. Will they carry my teachings with them or will they allow themselves to become unmotivated mush influenced not by strong, noble values, but by street values? At the very least, Cameron's story should remind us to do our best to keep the faith.

  4. Fantastic! This is why we need to stick to the belief that we can be the difference makers. Cam will serve as such a strong role model and inspiration to his peers (much like you and the staff have to your fellow educators).

  5. Inspiration. Thank you Cam for letting us hear your story.

  6. This is a great post, Cale. What I like the best about it is that you showed how your PLC practices connect back to the success or failure of an individual student.

    In so many conversations about PLCs, data at the school level is shared---and as great as that data is, it's not nearly as convincing or rewarding as a story about how working to meet the needs of every child can pay off in the long run.

    Well done,

  7. A wonderful story about core values and caring. Thanks for sharing it.

  8. This is a great post. I guess what I am wondering is if you could ask Cam if you could post a copy of his speech. I'd love to read his words on it.

  9. My principal put me onto this site. Thanks for the inspiration; we start collaboration time built into out week next year. I am excited!

  10. ooops * our week


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