“What My Students Taught Me” is produced in partnership with the Teacher Project at Columbia Journalism School.
For her first four years teaching history at Lakeview High School in the Dallas suburb of Garland, Karen Sowers didn’t have any big challenges. That changed the day she met Donald Pierson, 29 years ago.
“From the moment he walked in, it was like the director said ‘action,’ and he was on,” Sowers says.
The energetic ninth grader would do anything to attract his teacher’s attention – positive or negative.
Sowers always liked Donald, describing him as “playful and jovial.” But she couldn’t figure out how to get him to stay in his seat and finish his work.
“We would have conversations – always amicable, always cheerful, always positive,” she says. “But it was never the response I wanted. I wanted him to say, ‘okay, Miss Sowers, I get it, I’ll get it done. I can see that you care about this and I need to care too.’ But that never happened.”
Donald, who is now 43, says he was used to teachers letting him skate by.
“The system that I figured out was they kinda push you through,” he says, adding that teachers gave passing grades to kids they didn’t how to deal with.
When his school year with Ms. Sowers came to an end, he expected Sowers to do the same thing: pass him on. Instead, she pulled him aside and told him he’d failed the course.
“If I gave him a passing grade, he was going to know that wasn’t real,” she says. “I had to be authentic.”
It wasn’t easy. Sowers had grown close to Donald, and had seen his potential.
“I felt like I failed him,” she says.
Sowers’ action left a lasting impression on Donald.
“I had to walk out of that room knowing that this lady has given me every opportunity and I just threw it away,” he remembers.
Sowers and Donald stayed in touch for the rest of his high school years. But the teacher always worried he resented her for the failing grade. So when she saw him, ten years later, stroll through the door of the Taco Bell where she was eating lunch, dressed in a white naval uniform and sporting his signature grin, she wondered if he’d come to tell her off.
But he’d come to say something else entirely. Donald thanked his old teacher.
“]You held my feet to the fire and you didn’t let me slide by,]” she recalls him saying. “I was shocked.”
Failing her class was a turning point for Donald, it turned out. It had such a profound effect on his life that he’d felt compelled to track Sowers down all those years later to tell her.
“I’m still making up for that day,” he says, noting that it motivated him to work much harder.
Since graduating high school, Donald has served in the military, spent time building churches in Africa, and operated his own farm.
He says that failing Sowers’ class wouldn’t have had the same transformative effect if she hadn’t shown him so clearly that she cared about him, and allowed him to show it back.
“It wasn’t the grade,” he says. “It was the fact that I let someone down that I had now started caring about.”
Sowers says that’s also the lesson she draws from teaching Donald: if a truly teacher cares for her students and lets them know, even the toughest moments can turn into chances for growth.