Meg Birgen: The First Step is the Hardest

Meg Birgen, 16-18, La Salle Middle School, St. Louis, MO

Meg Birgen, 16-18, La Salle Middle School, St. Louis, MO

I have now started my second year as a Lasallian Volunteer at La Salle Middle School in St. Louis, MO. What really strikes me the most, funnily enough, is how much easier it feels than my first year. I don’t know quite what I was expecting – or if I had many expectations at all. There were a lot of changes in community and in my service site this year – new house, new community, new supervisor, new students… however, something about this year feels so much less like there’s an ongoing panicked scream continuously running across my brain.

After some reflection, I think I figured out why –  and this conclusion came while I was helping one of my students with an “impossible” math program.

“I just can’t do it,” he told me. “It’s too hard.”

“You can do it,” I replied. “Do you think LeBron James became an all-star the first time he picked up a basketball?”

Meg Birgen and Bianca Desamour

Meg Birgen and Bianca Desamour

This conversation, I think, is pretty indicative of how much I’ve learned since starting my first year. To start with, I still only have the slightest idea of who LeBron James is, but at least I can name-drop him with the right sport!

For serious, though, as my kiddos would say, I am a totally different teacher (and person) than I was a year ago. It reminds me of my first LV orientation. One of my presenters told me something along the lines of, “As a first year teacher, you’re going to suck. That’s okay; it gets better.”

Every part of that statement was true. As a first year teacher, I sucked. But, it was okay; it got better.

I think that, as a teacher, helpings kids realize that the first step to being good at something is to suck at it is the most important lesson to impart. Teachers are not some all-knowing all-wise force – we are facilitators for knowledge.

The actual learning? That’s on the learners. All I’m doing is holding out a helping hand.

Meg and Students 2I’m not going to deny that it’s hard work, especially when my students are living in a society that holds everything against them and offers them little, if anything, back. Sometimes when they tell me about their life or experiences, I feel like we are stuck on a sinking lifeboat in the middle of a raging ocean, and all I’m doing is handing them a teacup to try and get the water out. What continues to amaze me is how they strive to excel anyway.

I have seen students start the year off barely able to read and finish it on grade level. I have seen students start off being “that problem child” who constantly has to be removed from class to winning “star of the month” by the end of the year.

Every time I have seen those changes happen is because those students came to a decision within themselves and then worked make that change.

Sure, sometimes it’s an adult who inspires them to make that change, but it’s the student who decides and acts on that change. The change is on them and so are the results.

There’s something to be learned there, I think, for all of us: change only happens so far as you work to make it happen.

And if my middle schoolers can do it, there’s no excuses for the rest of us.

Meg Birgen is a second year LV serving at La Salle Middle School in St. Louis, MO and is a 2016 graduate of Saint Mary’s College of California.

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