Paying It Forward: Teachers Model a Passion for Learning

08/22/2013 06:56 pm ET | Updated Oct 22, 2013

Dave was a disengaged 14-year-old. Everything about his world suggested he would fail. He came to class, eyes glazed over, seeing little relevance in school. He was lost. That is, until a teacher found ways to reach him. A teacher who helped Dave find his voice and discover purpose and passion.

That teacher was Trevor Muir from Kent Innovation High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. When given the attention he needed, and presented with learning choices that were real and engaging -- Dave became involved in a project he cared about and found relevant. For Global Studies, a combined World History and English class, Dave interviewed veterans and chronicled their stories for a video that was his "masterpiece." He later presented his documentary along with fellow group mates to veterans, community members and students. Dave put his heart and soul into this project and received his first "A."

Trevor told Dave's story in a riveting, Ignite-style talk, "Coming Alive at 14." The audience, which was packed to capacity with teachers, administrators, students and staff, rose to their feet at the end of the five minute presentation, cheering and clapping. Trevor's passion and empathy were captivating -- it was easy to imagine how his students could discover or deepen their love of learning.

Everyday and everywhere, adults, frequently teachers, make a positive difference connecting with seemingly unreachable students -- those with talents and abilities either suppressed or not yet discovered, often whose behaviors mask what is at their core -- a youth struggling to find his or her voice.

Trevor talked about our propensity to disregard those students who don't fit easily into the categories we've created -- they're not the students "with good study habits," or "those who turn their homework in on time." These students often shut down. They don't show up for class. They may make trouble for themselves and others.

Trevor lamented that as adults we tell ourselves, "You cannot save them all," and that perhaps some students are "too far gone," by the age of 14. But Trevor doesn't believe that; he knows you cannot limit yourself that way. About Dave, he says, "he now stands on a rocket that has not landed."

Trevor used the metaphor of the scraggly Indian Neelakurinji plant, which takes 14 years to bloom. With patience, the locals wait for the transformation they know will take place given enough time and water.

The best teachers are themselves hungry to learn as adults -- eager to find ways to reach "difficult" students, creating projects that motivate and engage, finding ways to coax the hidden talents out of each student, making learning real and relevant. Perhaps this is the best way to pay it forward. Adults modeling the intrinsic value of "learning to learn" in their daily lives, providing learners powerful ways to do what they do. Taking risks and opening the shared learning experience -- providing students with ways to take responsibility for their own learning, their own voices.