Office hours are among the most powerful tools teachers have in their arsenal. Over the years, setting this time aside has enabled me to learn more about my students as people, which in turn has helped them become more successful. Rather than writing emails constantly, this time allows me to personally explain difficult concepts, help them catch up on missed work, and overcome hurdles in the way of the classroom success.
Most importantly, office hours have allowed me to build meaningful relationships with my students, and they have helped me in unexpected ways. In fact, one such meeting was nothing short of life changing—for both my student and me.
The Problem with Macbeth
A few years ago, I had a student named Mustafa in my sophomore World Literature English class. He was a tall, gangly boy, and the only thing I knew about him was that he was Bosnian and played soccer. Every day when Mustafa came to class, he asked to go to the bathroom or to see the nurse. He frequently put his head down on the desk as if he would rather be asleep than be engaged in life. He never said much in class, but one day I asked a challenging question: "Why did Macbeth murder King Duncan? What went wrong with the plan?"
Mustafa lifted his head off his desk and raised his hand, "The problem with Macbeth was that he was a fierce warrior, whose skill could not translate to the political arena."
"Basically," Mustafa explained, "Macbeth was a great fighter. He was ambitious, but he wasn't suited to be king. Not all soldiers make great rulers."
Suddenly I was looking at a play I had taught for 11 years in a totally different light. I needed to find out what prompted this fascinating answer, so I asked him to see me after school.
My Student's Story
I cut right to the chase when I met with Mustafa that afternoon: "I can tell by the answers that you've given me during our book discussions you're insightful and intelligent, but you are failing my class. What's going on?" So Mustafa told me his story.
He was born in Bosnia. When he was only a small child, war broke out in his country and, because he was a Muslim, he and his family were targeted by an ethnically prejudiced campaign. Mustafa's younger sister's leg was severely injured when this campaign incited physical violence, and his family fled their home—narrowly escaping death at Srebrenica, where over 8,000 Bosniak Muslims were killed.
During the war, Mustafa seldom attended classes. Schools were either destroyed by explosions or it was simply too dangerous to walk to school. Only after the war was over, Mustafa and his family came to the US to seek medical treatment for his sister. Mustafa spoke very little English, and was placed in 7th grade English Language Learner classes. He rapidly picked up the new language, and, by sophomore year, transitioned to regular education.
Mustafa said he only went to school to play soccer, so when the season was over, he would drop out to get a job and help his family. I told him not to—he'd be much more valuable to his family with a high school education.
Learning from a Student's Background
I would've never known Mustafa's story without having this conversation. Our time together was enlightening for me. Where I previously saw an oppositional, lazy student, I now saw a child who had overcome enormous struggles. Over the next two years, I mentored Mustafa to becoming an award-winning athlete and an Honor Roll and Advanced Placement student. He received a scholarship—first to prep school and then college—and he now works for the federal government, where he hopes to ensure no child has to go through what he did.
Building relationships with students is one of the most important things a teacher can do. And throughout my career, office hours have enabled me to do just that. Students are more willing to speak opening and honestly with a teacher when they don't have to worry about what their peers will think. Together, the teacher and student can sit down and draw up an action plan for success. Students are able to see that the teacher has their best interest at heart, and they are less likely to be behavior problems when in the classroom.
Mustafa and I have kept in touch, and we both often wonder what would've happened if we did not meet and talk that day. One conversation can change a life forever.