There’s a quote that I love, that drives my practice, by Angela Valenzuela (1999), an education researcher from Arizona State. She says, “Students will not care about school until they feel cared for by the adults in the school.” And, oh, this is so, so, so true.

In my last post, I referenced an incident in which a student who should have already been suspended got in a fight with another student. It was a mess – administration had screwed up royally, and everyone involved knew it.

I shouldn’t have been involved at all, as all the kids who were part of the whole thing were seventh and eighth graders, but I was. Here’s what happened (I feel like Monk!).

I was outside grading papers one day during seventh grade lunch. (My classroom is windowless, so when the weather is nice, I like to get some outdoor time if possible.) Whenever I do this, former students come over to say hi, ask what I’m doing, chat a bit.

That day, one of my favorite kids (henceforward known as the Charmer, because he is ridiculously charming when he wants to be, and a huge pain in the ass the rest of the time) and two of his friends came over. They were really upset about something that had happened this morning, and wanted to talk about it, so I figured that was more important than finishing reading the paragraphs I was on right then and asked what was up.

It took a while for me to get clear on the issue, but what I finally gathered was that another seventh grader had been roughed up by some notoriously bad eighth graders and they’d stolen his iPod headphones. He’d come to class (possibly in tears – that I never quite got straight) and the Charmer and friends had asked what was wrong. He told them, so they went and tried to chase the eighth graders down. Unsuccessful, they returned to class while The Victim went to the office to report what had happened.

Me: "Well, I’m sure it’ll be dealt with." The Charmer: "No, nothing happened, we asked The Victim and he said they weren’t even getting suspended. That’s messed up." Me: "You don’t know that, and neither does The Victim. Even if he’s involved, they can’t tell him what’s going to happen to the other kids. There are privacy rules ---" The Charmer: "But they didn’t even get sent home! They’re still here!" Me: "AND they have to wait until a parent can come get them. They might be in the office for a while ---" The Charmer: "No! Not the office. We saw them in the halls."

That silenced me for a minute. Because that really isn’t what should have happened. Still, I wanted to give the admin the benefit of the doubt.

Me: "...Oh. That’s weird. Well…I’m sure it’s in process somehow…." The Charmer: "No it’s not! Nothing’s going to happen. They do whatever they want and no one cares. It’s seriously f--, uh, messed up."

And that broke my heart. Because he was right. It was seriously messed up.

We’d just heard a couple of days before about how we weren’t meeting AYP and our growth wasn’t there and we were now in trouble with the state and steps were going to be taken. I’d been thinking a lot about the reasons that we weren’t making growth, because, as mentioned in my last post, it had been presented as being about instructional issues. Which totally exist, but, again, not the only problem. The quote I opened this post with kept running through my head.

The Charmer is a very smart kid, but he’s had a hard time of it in the last year; his mom lost her job the previous spring and the family became homeless. My state has legislation that requires that homeless students stay at their current school if the family wants that, so he stayed at our school for the rest of the school year despite living in a shelter over ten miles away. Dad’s not really in the picture – he left when the Charmer was four or five. His older brother graduated from high school last spring and got his own place, so the Charmer was left as sort of the man of the house. It’s a story that’s really pretty common. Which is really pretty sad.

Over the summer, the family moved to a shelter an additional 20 miles from school, so he started the year in a school there. They managed to get an apartment in our area through financial assistance from a local non-profit and moved back.

The Charmer had been back at my school for about six weeks when this all happened, and was already known by his current teachers for derailing classes, questioning authority, making inappropriate comments, and being generally obnoxious. I’d intervened in a situation for him a few weeks previously, when he’d been kicked out of a school dance for something he’d done accidentally and was able to get him back into the dance by guaranteeing that he would not do it again, and we’d talked for a while that day, so he knew I was on his side and cared about what was going on with him.

I’d been trying to convince him to take honors classes – he’d been in all honors in sixth grade but had refused to do any when he reenrolled. When I talked to his teachers about him, they were skeptical about any of the positive things I brought up, because all they saw was the irritating little shit who was disrupting their classes and didn’t care.

He’s the type of kid who, once you have him, he’s with you, but you have to earn his respect. He doesn’t give it out for free. He doesn’t trust many people (his mom, and sort of his brother) , and it makes me sad. He cares about school, because he wants to go to college, get a job, and not have the financial problems that his mom has. But that means he’ll work on the things that affect him, that he gets a grade for, but not on the things that don’t, like our state reading and math tests that only affect the school. Because as he sees it, the school doesn’t care about him or his classmates. No one cares.

That wasn’t okay with me. So I thought about it for a couple of days because I didn’t know what to do. Finally I decided to tell my principal that a few former students had come to me with a problem and I didn’t know how to respond to them, and ask for advice.

Although my principal is not perfect, I generally like her a lot. She is very open to conversations and has never made me feel like my opinion is invalid or useless even though I’m still new to the profession. I told her the deal, explained my theory about the Charmer buying out because of stuff like this, and said I didn’t know what to tell the kids.

She was great. She totally understood why I was worried and acknowledged that the admin had screwed up. She said I could tell the kids that, and I could tell them that the eighth graders in question did end up with severe consequences, though they came a few hours later than they should have.

I told them the next day. I’d love to say that it turned things around, that they saw the light and realized that the school DOES care, that they started working their butts off and became model students and citizens. This is a blog, though, not a fairy tale, and not so much.

They were still angry that it had happened in the first place, and that the consequences had been late, and I don’t blame them for that. But they learned that a teacher had cared enough about their feelings to do some research and get back to them on it. They heard about an adult admitting to a mistake, and trying to correct it. They had their feelings validated instead of dismissed.

A few other things came out of the situation too. Two weeks later, I started mentoring the Charmer formally – he said that he trusts me more than anyone else at school, so that’s something. Three weeks after that, I finally persuaded him to go into math and science honors. He and his friends have lunch with me periodically and I talk to them about their concerns. Sometimes I agree with them, sometimes I don’t. Either way, they see that someone cares enough to have the conversation, and that can’t be a bad thing.


"I'm a dreamer but I ain't the only one Got problems but we love to have fun" -K'naan, "Dreamer"

I teach eighth grade Language Arts at an urban school. My kids kick ass and will change the world. I want everyone to know.
Copyright 2009 I'm a Dreamer All rights reserved.
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