Making Progress – One Step at a Time

City Year Corps Member and Student

I already knew a little about Justin* when I began working with him in his language arts class. Other people had said to me, “Good luck. He never responds.” I soon encountered the same frustration I heard in their voices, as I collided abruptly with Justin’s academic apathy and quiet, socially withdrawn demeanor; this attitude was such a problem, in fact, that every attempt to interact with him or prompt him to work was met with silence. He simply ignored me and went about with his doodles.

However, I was prepared to do whatever was necessary to get Justin to do his work. Even if it meant that Justin would grow to despise me, I resolved to be an annoying stitch in his side, applying the positive peer pressure I felt he needed to succeed. After looking at his grades online, I knew what I was up against: his highest grade was a C, he was failing almost all of his classes, and he was at-risk of being held back a grade.

Every day, I worked to motivate Justin, and I tried to instill good academic and study habits into his daily routine. I would badger him to prepare for the start of the class lesson as soon as he walked in the room and talk about note taking, specific study tips, and everything in between. Gradually, Justin stopped ignoring me; however, his responses were less than ideal. He would grunt, sigh, and either begrudgingly comply or ask me why he should do what I asked of him. It wasn’t much, but I still considered it progress.

As the weeks and months went on, Justin would complain less and less. During my first report card conference with him, we discussed his likes, dislikes, and hobbies. Most importantly, however, we talked about his future and the possible opportunities that lay in store for him. I emphasized to him that none of that would be possible without an adequate education. This was a big turning point for our relationship, as Justin began to realize that I prompted him to work so much because I actually cared about him and his future. Slowly, Justin became more willing to do work on his own and without my pressure on him to do it.

As Justin’s motivation became more and more intrinsic, our relationship became less that of diametrical opposition, and I was able to maximize the help I could actually provide for him. He was much more receptive to my aid, and I was able to focus more on how to help him do his best; I no longer had to worry about getting him motivated and ready to work.

Now, Justin has rounded out the end of the third marking period with mostly B’s and C’s on his report card and not a single failing grade. There is still much work to be done but in just a few short months, Justin has made great improvements. In our recently completed second report card conference, we were able to have a much more genuine conversation focused around academics. He took the initiative to ask me what his prospects for promotion into the seventh grade were looking like, and he wanted to know exactly what he needed to do to keep from being held back.

As a result of Justin taking ownership of his academic work, he does not actually despise me as I feared he might. In fact, a few weeks ago he asked me impatiently if City Year would be accompanying the class field trip because he wanted me to be the chaperone for his home room. Not only do our interactions bring a smile to my face, but knowing that Justin is well on his way to academic success is an incredible joy. Just last week, he excitedly ran up to me to show off his latest progress report: A+. I could not be more proud of his improvements, and given his outstanding standardized test scores, I know Justin now has the intrinsic motivation and academic skills and habits necessary to do well in middle school and beyond.

*Names have been changed

Text by Pepis Rodriguez, City Year Seattle/King County corps member of the JPMorgan Chase/NELA Diplomas Now Team at Denny International Middle School

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