Emily S. Willson: How I helped a student who ‘would rather scrub toilets’ than read

Having struggled to read as a student, I could relate.

“I would rather scrub toilets than read!” said Mae, with a fierce look in her eye. Mae was one of my new fifth grade students, and I was trying to get to know her. (Her name has been changed.)

“You would, huh? Toilets, really?”

“Yes,” she said. “I hate reading!”

Having struggled to read as a student, I could relate. I remember that my feelings of hate were not really founded in dislike but rather frustration, fear and even shame. The words came so quickly to others, but it seemed that I had to work twice as hard to make any progress at all.

In the first few weeks of school, I thought a lot about Mae. I thought about what she had said, what supports were available and, most of all, I thought about her future.

I remember reading that students who struggle with reading as children have a multitude of issues as adults, including low self-esteem, jobs that they don’t enjoy and difficulty with relationships. Was this Mae’s future? No. No! There had to be more for her.

I started digging. She was receiving extra reading support and had been for a few years. Her progress was slow and painful. Just like many other students, as she grew, the gap widened and made it even harder — almost impossible — to catch up.

I’m not sure if it was my love of a challenge, seeing a little of myself in Mae or guidance from heaven, but I came up with an idea. This little girl was discouraged and beaten down. She considered reading to be a chore, something she did alone, much like the one she would rather do than read. It occurred to me that what she might need was to discover the joy of a good story with the support of her teacher and friends. So, with little more than inspiration, I formed a book club in my class.

Once a week, students would meet with me during one of their recesses for the first 10 minutes. They would bring a book they were currently reading and share a little bit about it with me and the rest of the students. All my students were invited to attend and participation was voluntary, but at a parent-teacher conference, I gave personal invites to Mae and a few others that also might benefit from this experiment.

The system was not perfect, and neither was this teacher. However, I could not wait for someone else, a new program or more funding to make a difference. I needed to help this little girl now.

All it took was a little sacrifice of time and a few treats. At the Book Club’s end-of-the-year pizza party, we celebrated all the books the students had read. I let them tell everyone their favorite. What did Mae say? Honestly, I don’t remember, but what I do remember was hearing another staff member’s comment about her: “That girl has changed. I never see her without a book in her hand. What happened?”

Well, what happened is that a teacher saw a need and filled it. It’s what teachers do every day and in every school because it’s who we are.

A few years ago, I received an email from Mae. She was a junior in an out-of-state high school and doing extremely well. She was the captain of her volleyball team. Self-esteem — check! She was loving her debate classes and considering a career in law. A possible job that she would enjoy — check! And enjoying healthy and positive relationships with her parents and friends. Meaningful relationships — check! She thanked me for my interest and love for her. She also said that her fifth grade year in my class was a turning point for her.

Before Mae left my class, she gave me a potted cactus. It was a one-inch single stub with some spikes on it. It did not look like much to someone else, but I loved it! Years later, after some care and love, it has many branches from the original stalk and has grown other smaller cacti beside it. It’s strong, healthy, and one of my prized possessions. Why? It is a reminder of why I do what I do.

What a remarkable privilege it is to be an educator. Challenging, yes, but there is no work I’d rather be doing.

(Emily S. Willson) A potted plant Emily S. Willson received from a student.

Emily S. Willson

Emily S. Willson is a Utah Teacher Fellow, a graduate student at the University of Utah and an elementary administrator. She resides in Tooele County with her five children and husband.