Siobhan Curious had a post recently in which she asked her readers what they’d learned from their most challenging student. My most challenging student…oh, he sucked. He sucked hard. Or at least our relationship sucked, for a looooooooong time.
The issues began in January. My school had a lot of issues this year with truancy (I know. In sixth grade. Atrocious, right?) and one day, Slick decided to join in. He and three of his friends ditched. Which wouldn’t have been SO bad, except they also decided to throw rocks. Through windows. Of houses. And then they ended up with felony charges.
The kids involved were suspended for a week, post-ditching (because THAT’S a punishment), and when they came back, we were told to not treat them any differently than any other kids. Okay, fine. It’s not like I’d been planning on some sort of public self-flagellation, but I’d make every effort to treat Slick and his pals just like everyone else.
Apparently, Slick didn’t feel I was following through. Slick felt I was singling him out by doing things like calling on him during class for the answer to a question, or by asking him where his homework was when he didn’t have it out. I got a lot of pained sighs and rolled eyes, ignoring me when I asked him questions, refusing to follow directions.
And here’s the thing. That doesn’t fly in my class. Ain’t nobody going to treat me with that kind of disrespect.
But Slick was, and because of the edict to treat him like everyone else, I let it slide for a couple of days, despite that fact that I was absolutely treating him differently by being easier on him than I normally would have been. My back? Bent over to make sure this delicate tulip didn’t feel awkward.
I talked to Slick about it. I talked to his mom about it. I talked to my colleagues and my admin about it. After about two weeks of his jackassery, I set up a parent meeting, and the rest of my core came too, as he’d been giving them all kinds of crap as well. In the meeting, I made it clear that I wanted him to be successful but that I would not stand for him undermining me in front of his peers. Subtext: if he wanted to fight, we could fight, but I would win. His mom agreed that was not okay, and it got better. Mostly. One day he did attempt to turn in a paper by shaking it in my face, but after a brief chat, he reluctantly acknowledged that he’d made an inappropriate choice and would not do so again.
A few months passed, and Slick was absent for over a week, unexcused. I asked his class if anyone knew what was up. The Natural Athlete piped up with, “Maybe he’s ditching because he hates your class so much.” I silenced him with a look, and then asked him to join me in the hall. We discussed how it’s probably not the best idea to tell a teacher how bad their class sucks during class, to which the Natural Athlete assured me that he loved my class, it was his second favorite, just Slick didn’t like it. We moved on from there, but honestly, I was taken aback. Because the thing is, I thought things had changed. I thought Slick and I had worked through the previous animosity. Recently he’d been joking around with me some, turning in work, doing assignments without repeated requests. So the Natural Athlete’s comment was disappointing.
Slick came back, and still seemed fine. A couple of weeks later, he asked me if I needed any help with anything. He owed community service from the January incident and wanted to serve it with me. Again, taken aback, but I agreed. He started staying after school to help with whatever I needed.
A few hours into the community service, I couldn’t take it anymore. “Hey, Slick?”
He looked up from his filing. “Yeah?”
“Would you agree that for a while there, you and I weren’t getting along so well?”
He nodded emphatically. “Oh yeah. Absolutely. Really bad.”
“And now, would you say we’re getting along better?”
He nodded even more emphatically. “Yup. Waaaaaay better. Like totally different.”
I paused. “So….what changed? Why are we getting along better now?”
He paused too. “Well…I don’t know.”
“Well…I think mostly the difference? The difference is that I kinda grew up and figured some things out.”
What a great response, I thought, but I didn’t want to push it. I nodded. “Got it.” We both went back to work.
As I mentioned before, Thursday was the last day with kids. Slick still needed three community service hours, so he came in on Friday to help me out. After three hours, I signed his card and told him how much I’d appreciated his help. He didn’t move. “So, um, what else do you need help with?”
I looked at him. “Slick, you’re done. You’ve been great, but you can totally go if you want to.”
He fidgeted with a pencil. “I could still help if you need more help. Because, like, I needed the hours, but mostly I just wanted to help.”
“Really? Are you sure?”
“I’m sure.” He stayed for two more hours and is coming back on Tuesday to help me move my room.
This is the kid who hated me more than anyone. This is the kid who made me dread seeing my second period some days, because he could be such an asshole. This is the kid who told the whole class that writing was boring and pointless.
I don’t know what happened, I don’t know how I did it except to treat him with respect and try to be aware when he seemed to be on the verge of shutting down, but somehow, this is a kid I reached. This is a kid who hugged me goodbye on the last day of school. This is a kid who laughs at my corny jokes. This is a kid who says Language Arts is his favorite class now, when he hates reading and writing. This is a kid I reached.
What did I learn from him? Treat everyone with respect. Sometimes you can’t control how people feel about you. Everyone deserves a second, and third, and eighth, and seventeenth chance. Anyone can change, but sometimes you have to change first.
When he learned I was moving to eighth grade, Slick got very quiet. “I wish you weren’t going,” he said.
I smiled at him. “But this way you’ll actually see me more often. My new room is by the seventh grade classrooms.”
“You’re still teaching here? At this school?”
He visibly relaxed. “Oh. Okay. That’s okay then.”
He hated me most. More than anyone. It’s nice when hate’s in the past, isn’t it?