Written By: Hans Appel
I’ll never forget Pete. Pete was a freckle faced, tall thin young man with thick coke bottle glasses. He had buck teeth, a goofy smile, and an impish disregard for following the rules. He was completely disinterested in traditional education and took painstaking opportunities to avoid work. Prior to middle school, he had been ‘gifted’ the labels of ADHD, Tourettes, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Learning Disabled, Behavior Problem, and general pain in the butt. He had tried counseling and medications throughout elementary school with little to no success. His parents were excruciatingly demanding, critical, and combative with their son’s school system. In nearly 18 years working in education, Pete was one of the most challenging students, I have ever worked with. If I’m being honest his mere name mentioned in some teacher circles in the Richland School District (RSD) brings about grunts and groans before eventually giving way to tiny smiles. Surviving Pete and his family was a badge of honor for some educators who had their patience, commitment, and forgiveness tested on a regular basis.
My first encounter with Pete, was in the spring of his 5th grade year as his elementary school led a transition meeting to get him “all set up for success in middle school.” I distinctly remember him openly explaining to all of us (probably 10 adults in attendance) that there was “no point in middle school” because he was “going to play video games for a living.” It’s the same type of grandiose proclamations we’ve all heard: “I’m gonna play in the NFL,” “I’m gonna marry someone rich” “I’m gonna be a Youtube star.” One time, I even had someone say to me: “I don’t need school cuz I’m gonna be a drug dealer.” (I CRINGE typing that last sentence). A story for another time.
In all transparency, I NEVER thought Pete would go on to play video games for a living. Back then, I’m not even sure I knew that was a potential career path. Certainly, I wanted to believe that Pete was capable of success. However, at 13 years old, I couldn’t fathom what success might look like for him.
In his time with us, Pete struggled academically, socially, and behaviorally EVERYDAY. We tried support classes, remedial classes, and no classes. We implemented behavior plans, academic plans and 504/IEP plans. In 3 years, we probably had dozens of parent meetings, staffings, and brainstorming sessions. While I could write about some of the crazy days I had with Pete and his family (there were plenty), there’s no need to do that here. You had or currently have a Pete in your school. He or she may look or sound slightly different. Probably goes by a different name but I’m confident you recognize the at-risk signs of despair. Your team of educators have identified him or her as a kid, who you fear, for many reasons, may not make it. You worry about him or her dropping out, passing state testing, and even getting mixed up into unhealthy or unsafe choices. But beyond school, you worry about his or her ability to function in society. Will he or she be capable of forming relationships or holding down a job? There’s little doubt that your Pete, keeps you and your educational team up at night, as you theorize ideas, solutions, or options to support him or her.
Pete isn’t a story in how our Award Winning Culture saved the day or turned him around. This isn’t an opportunity for me to pat myself or my colleagues on the back. Truth be told, we never figured out how to help Pete. It was a struggle for 3 years just as it was the next 4 ½ years in high school. Luckily, our refusal to give up, his parents hard work, and our high school’s commitment to graduate Pete, kept him afloat. In 12 years of public education, schooling never got easier for him. He found little to no success as he squeaked and suffered through. Having barely graduated from high school, college was neither of interest or opportunity for Pete.
So, why include Pete in my development of an Award Winning Culture? By now, you might be curious to know how Pete actually turned out?
Pete is currently a video game tester and designer who lives in the San Francisco area. He makes over 3 times what I make and flies all over the world working on the latest video game roll outs. He’s a highly sought out technological expert who no longer requires therapy or unhealthy amounts of pharmaceuticals. Although, he takes a mild dose to help with tourettes, he’s basically support free. He’s uber happy, passionate, and filled with gratitude for the RSD educators and parents who never gave up on him. Because I had stayed in occasional contact with his parents, I was able to follow his meteoric rise to life success. However, I still longed for the opportunity to visit with him in person...
Several years ago, he finally stopped into Enterprise Middle School to say hi to myself and a few teachers. Behind the corrected teeth, and updated eyewear, Pete was still a smiling, bundle of energy. Sitting still was obviously difficult but his heart shown through as he bounced around the school. While he made no attempt to see every educator he had in RSD, he was purposeful in seeking out a handful of folks in each building.
If I’m being honest with myself, I feel like he succeeded DESPITE all of us and part of me wondered WHY he would ever want to come see any of us...let alone me. His words explained it all:
“Thank-you for not giving up
on me Mr. Appel.”
We shared some laughs about some of the ridiculous antics that Pete routinely found himself involved in and I relished in the opportunity to hear a first hand account of how he made his dream of playing video games come true. He absolutely beamed as I gushed praise and admiration for all he had accomplished!
Pete is the type of unexpected success story that causes reflective educators to take pause. How should school have been set up differently for Pete? Would he have benefited from Flexible Seating? Student-Centered work time? Project Based Learning? STEM focused education? Student Choice? Student Engagement Strategies? Passion projects? Genius hour? Etc.
How many other students SLIP through our educational systems’ because they lack supportive parents, a singularly focused life vision, and the unapologetic insight to recognize their own strengths? How many students give up before they find their WHY? Does it scare YOU? It scares the heck out of me!
In hindsight, EVERYTHING we tried was the wrong approach. I’d like to think that Pete’s educational experience at EMS might have been much different now as we work so hard to help every student find their joy in life. But Pete isn’t an example of excellence because of our Award Winning Culture. He succeeded in spite of all our best efforts at the wrong interventions, treatments, and fixes. However, Pete is a shining reminder that refusing to give up on a student is perhaps an Award Winning Culture’s MOST important characteristic. Probably more than a few educators were moved to tears, anger and frustration during Pete’s 12 years of education. I know I was….I wonder how his educational experience might have been different if we had EMPOWERED him to take ownership of his own learning in the pursuit of his passion. Rather than guessing at interventions, maybe we could have involved him, in his own learning.
Other educators may have become indifferent and/or oblivious to his lack of school success. They may have chalked it up to a lost cause and put their energy back into other “savable kids.” On the other hand, Pete’s success and positive attribution to a band of educators that refused to admit defeat is a perfect illustration of why educators in an Award Winning Culture simply don’t quit on kids.
Award Winning Culture adopts a mindset that EVERY student can realize success if we refuse to give up on them.
Furthermore, if we know our current systems are NOT set up for our next Pete to succeed...what’s preventing us from changing our systems NOW?!
Since Pete successfully foreshadowed a future career in gaming, I’ve helped other students understand and explore the gaming world. In fact, for the past 4 years, we’ve brought DigiPen (from Redmond Washington) in to speak to our students about summer opportunities, distance learning options, and discovering a college experience at the #1 Video Game Design School in the country. Since 1988, DigiPen Institute of Technology has been preparing students to succeed as skilled engineers, artists, and designers in the growing technology industries. They were the first college in the world to offer a bachelor’s degree in video game technology and development. With the help of DigiPen recruiters, and students like Pete, blazing a trail of gaming hope; I feel more equipped than ever to support my students’ dreams of “playing video games for a living.”
Of course, the lessons with Pete, have little to do with video games and everything to do with relationships. My challenge to educators is to relook at your school’s student-version of Pete with fresh eyes and open heart. If we assume that EVERY kid is one adult away from success, are you willing to turn over every stone, to be THAT adult. Maybe it’s not always about getting the right intervention, program, or strategy. I like to think that Maya Angelou had it all right, when she said:
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them FEEL.”
Sometimes it may be as simple as getting the right adult. Just think...if enough of us create an Award Winning Culture, perhaps there’s a tipping point where our educational ecosystem becomes flourishing...better yet EXCEPTIONAL for all of the Pete’s out there.
I urge you to start TODAY! Don’t wait for the system to change. Change the system. The next Pete is already waiting. He might be in your office, classroom, or hallway. Heck, he may even be living in your own home…
“Every Student. Every Day. Whatever it Takes.”
**Looking for a great place to start reaching EVERY STUDENT? I encourage you to check out a recent blog post by Barbara Bray on her Teaching & Learning Continuum. You’ll also find the following BRILLIANT graphic available to download. Be sure and follow Barbara on Twitter and subscribe to her Rethinking_Learning Podcast for cutting edge conversations with educational leaders!
About the Author
Hans Appel has worked as a counselor in the Richland School District for the past 18 years and at Enterprise Middle School since it opened. He’s passionate about school culture, servant leadership, and kindness. In 2018, EMS was awarded the ASCD Whole Child Award for the State of Washington and the Global “Class Act Award” for creating a culture of excellence through kindness, service, and empathy. Recently, Hans launched his own blog about School Culture and this fall rolled out a student-led leadership podcast called Award Winning Culture: Hosted by Wildcat Nation, which can be subscribed, listened or reviewed on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, Spotify, and Libsyn. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Hans on twitter @hansappel094. Follow AWC on twitter at @awculture or Instagram @awardwinningculture. Wildcat Nation at @emswildcats1 and Instagram @emscounseling #WildcatNation #AwardWinningCulture
Award Winning Culture was created by Hans and Jennifer Appel with the sole purpose of creating an educational mindset of Positive INTENTIONALITY and ACTION; with a daily mantra to make our sphere of influence stronger through Character, Excellence, and Community. Part of AWC's mission is to highlight outstanding educators, companies, and resources that support an Award Winning Culture. Both Jennifer and Hans work at Enterprise Middle School aka Wildcat Nation. Wildcat Nation received the 2018 ASCD Whole Child Award in Washington, for its award winning culture and the 2018 Global "Class Act Award" for Kindness.