The Magic Question for Teachers


A Student I Will Never Forget

I was preparing my third grade classroom for the first day of school when I noticed an unusual name on the student roster.  The name was Kim Hyangsil.  The first name, Kim, was common enough.  But I remember thinking the last name Hyangsil seemed like an unusual name and I wondered how to pronounce it correctly.  It was early on the first day of school that I discovered only one of my assumptions was correct.  The name did belong to a little girl.  But her first name wasn’t Kim.  It was Hyangsil.  Kim was her surname.  She was Korean and she didn’t speak or understand a single word of English.


Even gathering this meager amount of information was something of a feat when you consider that neither of us could speak one word that the other could understand.  Today, that might not be so unusual. Our schools are liberally sprinkled with students who do not speak English as their native tongue.  But this story took place in the midwest about two decades before classes that taught English as a second language became commonplace.  Korean children in our schools were more rare than kangaroos in a Mexican restaurant. When I questioned the school office personnel they seemed amazed and unaware of Hyangsil’s language barrier.  They called home to gather more information only to discover that Mom, too, spoke only Korean.

What in the World Was I Going to Do?

I think that is when I first discovered the magic question.  This one simple question has done more to make me a better teacher than any other single act I can recall. It will work in every classroom situation, no matter how diverse or how seemingly hopeless.  It shapes and guides my relationship with every single student in each and every class, no matter what their age, learning style, cultural background or attitude of the moment. This question, if asked sincerely and with an open mind, will always point a teacher in the right direction.  What is the question?

       What one thing can I do to help create some success in my classroom for this student today?

Too simple?  Re-read it please.  Some of life’s greatest wisdoms are simple.

Ask the question, be still, and then listen for the answer.  You’ll be amazed at how much expertise you have in areas in which you have received no training whatsoever.  Try any idea that occurs to you.  If it doesn’t work, adapt.  Try something a little differently the next day.  Let your student guide the way. Keep asking the question with sincerity every day.  The results will amaze you.


As soon as you utter the words, “I can’t do anything to help this student,” you and your student are both lost.  Never give up on a student. Many times I’ve thought, “I don’t know if I’m making progress.  I’ve never been trained to handle a situation like this.  I don’t know what I’m doing.”  But I never once uttered, “I can’t do this.”  Can’t is a cop out.  It is a refusal to try.  For a great teacher this is not an option.

Twice, after months of effort,  I’ve felt so guilty about not having enough expertise that I’ve called the parents in for a conference to tell them I was outside my teacher comfort zone.  I’ve asked the parents frankly if they have seen their child making progress while in my classroom.  I’m not certain if this was the right thing to do, but personally and professionally I just felt like I had to confess my uncertainty to the parents.  Maybe an administrator wouldn’t have liked this approach, but in my gut I knew I was doing what I had to do.  In both of those situations I was dealing with students with very different learning styles.  Both times the parents reassured me that their child was making progress.  They gave me examples to prove their observations.

But I’ve never once said, “I’ve not been trained to do this so I know I won’t be effective.  I give up.”  A great teacher must have a tremendous sense of efficacy.  Try something, observe the results, try something else, adapt.   Try again, and again and again.  Not all students have the capacity to progress at a typical pace, but that doesn’t mean your efforts are without results.

What Did I Do with Hyangsil?

I found picture cards of familiar objects.  Each night I made recordings of how to pronounce the objects in simple sentences.  “Wagon.  This is a wagon.  Tree.  This is a tree.”  I attached the recordings to head phones where she could practice vocabulary whenever she had a free moment.  I gave her partners within the classroom to help her with simple sight words (today called high frequency words) and sentences.  She was a bright little girl and she learned the English language very rapidly.  She was especially proficient in math and she made beautiful drawings.  I found classroom activities in which she could highlight those skills. It wasn’t long before the other students respected her for her unique talents.

Predictably, because the more effort you put into anything the more you reap from it, she and I became extremely close.  It was such a heartbreak when her family moved away only a semester later.  By that time though, we had a wonderful bond.  She and I were pen pals for probably ten years.  I lost track of her when she was living in California, but I still think of her with great fondness and wonder how she’s doing.  When the internet became more prevalent, I tried to find her again.  I found a young lady living in Korea with the same name, but she was far too young at this time to be the Hyangsil Kim I knew from years ago.

As with many of my most memorable students, Hyangsil taught me more than I taught her.  She taught me to never give up on any situation.  She gave me courage and confidence as a teacher.  But most of all she helped me learn to ask the magic question that guided me through the rest of my teaching career.

What is one thing I can do today to help create some success in this student’s life today?

Ask this question every day and then get busy.  It’s the best gift you can give your students and yourself.

TEACH…To Change Lives

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