How a 17-year-old Made Me a Better Teacher

Tracy Nothnagel
Legal Assistant

In my first few years of teaching, I had the attitude that I didn’t care if students showed up to my classes or not. It was my belief that they were in college and if they didn’t want to come to class then that was up to them. If a student stopped coming to class, I just went on as usual and didn’t care to find out why. That all changed when I met Rachael. Rachael was 17 years old and in my Introduction to Paralegal Studies class. Now you see, this was rare as I was teaching at a University and I had never had a student so young in my class. Most students didn’t get to my classes until they completed their two years of general education courses.

Early in the semester I noticed there was something special about Rachael. After reading the first paper she wrote in my class, I was knocked off my feet. She was 17 and a brilliant writer. She was the best writer I had seen in my five years of teaching. All I kept saying was, “Wow, she is 17.” Through this assignment I learned that Rachael aspired to be a lawyer and I thought, she is going to be a great lawyer and really excel in law school.

About one month into the semester, Rachael stopped coming to class. She would show up on quiz days and always get the highest grade, most of the time it was 100%. I kept wondering why she didn’t show up. I thought, is it me, does she just not need me to learn this material? However, I did nothing. Midterm week came and she showed up for class and aced the exam. I don’t know why I did what I did after that, but I am glad I did. I reached out to Rachael by email. I asked her why she hadn’t been coming to class. I told her how brilliant I thought she was. I explained that in future classes it will be necessary to show up. What happened next surprised and changed me forever.

Rachael emailed me back and said she was struggling in her personal life. She said her parents just found out she was a lesbian and they did not accept that. In her culture, this is not accepted and is actually looked down on. She was living with her girlfriend’s family and was missing home. She wanted her family to accept her and she didn’t know how to live without that acceptance. Over the remainder of that semester, Rachael and I built a relationship. I looked at her as my little sister or a niece. We talked about her goals, she cried in my office and I just tried to be there for her as much as I could. Rachael finished the semester and I didn’t see her for a few years as she finished her general education credits. When I saw her two years later in my legal writing course, she told me that what I did changed her life and that my email and mentoring pushed her to continue with her studies and show up for class. By this time, her parents had accepted her life choice and they embraced her girlfriend and her family life was great.

Over the years, I have kept in touch with Rachael. I saw her graduate from college, law school, marry her high school sweetheart, and become a mother and very successful lawyer. I am forever grateful for that day I sent that email. When Rachael told me what difference I made, I cried. When she graduated law school, we met for drinks and I told her she changed my life too. I told her she made me a better a teacher from that day forward. I now reach out to students who stop showing up and I am often surprised by their responses. I am a better teacher because of what I learned from a 17-year-old college student.