Over the past couple of months, I was fortunate enough to work with an outstanding group of seventh graders. As the English Department Coordinator, I wanted a chance to get back to a Middle School classroom as way of seeing, first hand, if our department initiatives really fit the crowd. Fortunately, one of my colleagues allowed me to enter her classroom. I never took that gesture for granted.
They are a group of really great kids. They love their English Teacher, but welcomed me with the same enthusiasm each and every time I came into the room. Their willingness to do “stuff I taught high schoolers” astounded me every session. I can’t lie; now that my time with them is up, I miss those 52 minutes a day with them. Just last week, I popped in to see them because, well, I wanted to. I was greeted with hugs from many. They are reading The Hunger Games right now and I promised I would keep up. When I announced that I didn’t like Catniss, the debate ensued.
As we debated, he caught my eye. He always catches my eye. He’s the young man who is sitting in the back of the room, his nose in a book. It’s not the book the class is reading, but it is a book; he is always intensely reading. He always looks engrossed and lost in another world. The first day I came into the class, he didn’t look up at all. I thought I could get him by going over and talking to him. He was surprised when I asked him what he was reading–a fantasy graphic novel–and when I told him I wasn’t going to take it away. I asked him about the story and he told me a bit. But, as I moved closer, he withdrew. I moved on, sensing I needed to give him some space.
Each day, I tried to engage more. He would talk a little and then, suddenly, withdraw. I had a mini-celebration one day–in my head–when he actually got up to get a Chromebook and write a few words. But, during my time in the room I couldn’t reach him. I couldn’t hook him into what we were doing. I even learned to play Fortnite, which gave me a little cred, but that didn’t even work. For the record, I once finished 11th during a Fortnite session. Seventh graders were pretty impressed with that.
But, there was something there. I knew there was something that was keeping him from being interested in what everyone else in the class was doing. The class was having a great time, but he was disinterested, disengaged. It bothered me. There was something more to him. There was something holding him back, making him push away from truly being involved with the class. Most days, he would just sit and read. Other days, he would act out a bit. It was nothing rude, but it was clear he didn’t want any part of the work in the way we were doing it. In his own way, he was paying attention, but he refused to, with the exception of small bites here and there, to be a part of the class. I couldn’t figure it out, but I wouldn’t stop digging.
There is always something more. There is always a reason.
About a week ago, I was called into a classroom to help a colleague. She just needed some assistance with some tech, which in the English Department is commonplace. As I was in there, I noticed a slip of paper on the other teacher’s desk who shares the room. My colleague must have noticed the look on my face and the preoccupation with the large post it note that was prominent on that desk. She tried to get me refocused on the tech, but she knew I wasn’t letting it go. I considered ripping it up, but I didn’t. I regret not ripping it up. I should’ve ripped it up because its contents were everything that kids fear about Teachers.
The note said:
“Your lack of interest in my class is not my emergency or problem.”
Actually, “teacher”, it is your problem.
It is your emergency.
It is why you are entrusted with kids. You are tasked with motivating young minds to learn and explore. You are tasked with helping them discover who they are, what they want to do, and to see all possibilities. You are not only tasked with this when it comes to the “easy” ones, those kids who come to you already motivated. Your task is far more important with those who come to you and need you.
They need you to find the something more. They need you to find the reason. They don’t always need you to solve their problems—most of them can’t be solved—but they need you to show that you care, that you can empathize, and that you believe in them despite their imperfect lives. They won’t tell you that they need that, but that is exactly why it is paramount that you know that they need it. And, if you don’t believe that this is the true purpose of the job, it is time to get out. Honestly, that sign epitomizes why you have trouble connecting with your students and why the respect isn’t there.
I walked out of that classroom in a bad mood. I knew that there were about 100 teenagers who had one period a day where they knew the teacher didn’t care. The kids who may not need this will suffer because they know when someone isn’t all in. But, the kids who need someone to dig deeper will suffer even more. It’s just another year where they don’t get the attention they need.
But, I was in a worse mood because it brought back to mind one of my regrets in teaching. It’s one that I still don’t forgive myself for, even though I was given hero status in the teacher’s lounge. It was year three of teaching. I had made a ton of mistakes during years one and two, but I thought I had it all figured out during year three. My Principal called me in and said that I would be getting a remedial class on my schedule because he knew I could handle “them”. I wore that badge proudly. I may have made a ton of mistakes, but I didn’t really have a problem relating to kids.
The class started fine enough. The kids weren’t interested in doing any work, but I was able to coax them to see the value of actually getting out of middle school and moving on to high school. About a month into the year, a kid transferred from another district and was placed in this remedial class. I can still remember the day we were called in for a guidance team meeting. The counselor was very dramatic, telling us that this kid was tough. He wouldn’t give us any other history or specifics, just that he was tough and had low scores.
I didn’t think anything of it. I was arrogant enough to think I could handle anything. Day one with JB taught me differently.
I welcomed him, a kid who stood nearly six feet tall, at the door and he said nothing. I called on him to answer an easy question…nothing. He grunted at me a few times. He went to sleep. I thought I was being challenged on day one. I did what every teacher who feels like he doesn’t have a clue what to do: I kicked him out. He muttered some things as he left. But, he left.
After class, I was seething in the hallway. How dare this kid challenge me? Looking back at that scene, a scene I can still vividly see, I can see how ridiculous I was. Teaching isn’t about power or authority. It is about respect and relationships. I know now that I gave him neither. Most importantly, I failed to dig deeper.
So, I was out in the hallway seething when a veteran teacher came up to me. Unfortunately, this was the wrong veteran. This was the one who was simply punching the clock. I told him what happened. He said I was right in kicking the kid out. He also said I should be more aggressive, that I shouldn’t lose my status as an authority figure in the room.
Seriously, he said that.
The next day, I was ready. I greeted JB at the door. He said nothing. I asked him to go get a book to follow along. He did nothing. I yelled at him. Authority figures yell, right? Well, JB didn’t like that. He got up, picked up his desk, and threw it at me. I was enraged, but still consciously thinking. I figured if I flung the desk back in his area, I would “announce my presence with authority.” As I went to fling the desk back, I saw the fear in his eyes. He was scared. The bravado he had in his moment of anger wilted into the look of a six year old boy who was genuinely afraid about what was going to happen next. I thought I “won the battle”.
All I really did was lose the kid. For good.
I pushed the desk back in his vicinity, but didn’t come close to hitting him. The class erupted in laughter. JB was embarrassed. He cursed me out and left the class. Deep down, I knew I was wrong, but the class was with me. That look of fear was all I could think of.
After the period, teachers came up to me and congratulated me for my actions. I got yelled at the by Principal for pushing the desk, but since it didn’t make contact with any kid, nothing would happen to me.
Then, the good veteran teacher caught me. He was the only one who wasn’t celebrating. He told me I deserved to be fired. He told me I was lucky he wasn’t the Principal. But, he told me he wanted me to learn from that. He took the time to dig into JB, who had been in his fourth group home in six months. His mother had passed away a couple of years before and his Dad was physically abusive to him. That explains the look of fear.
He then brought JB into the room and talked to both of us. He chewed me out in front of JB. He told JB that I wasn’t all bad and that we should start over. We got along fine for the next few months before he was transferred out to another District. To this day, I see that look of fear. And that look was caused by me not finding out the something more. I didn’t find out the reason, until it was too late. We got along fine, but he never trusted me like the other kids did. I didn’t deserve that trust.
Since then, I never stop digging. My month stint in the seventh grade with this one particular student immediately led to a conversation with my colleague. She felt the same way. She was digging too. Finally, we uncovered the something more. We uncovered the reason why. And, truthfully, it is awful. It is horrific. It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it. No kid should ever have to experience what this kid went through. After hearing it, you don’t blame the kid for getting lost in a different world. You don’t blame the complete absence from what is going on. If it were me, I don’t know if I would be able to be in any sort of class. Yet this kid shows up. That’s courage.
Even though my time is up with my seventh graders, I still check in with them. Because my colleague has the information, she is approaching this kid differently. The other day, I peaked in and saw them working on some writing. There was interaction and the kid was smiling. Because she dug deeper, she is making an impact. She can’t cure this kid or take away what he has gone through, but she can give him a safe place that is dignified, empathetic, and hopeful.
There is always something more. There is always a reason. Kids of all ages come into our classrooms wanting to feel safe, accepted, and valued. They may not show it. They will resist. But, if we show that we care and we show that we will never give up on them, belittle them, and keep trying to carve out a genuine relationship, we can make their lives better. We will not only open a window to teach them content, but we can help them make sense of the direction they want to go.
We can do this, simply, by talking to kids. We can find a way in through their interests outside of the classroom. So, you may have to read a book they like or learn how to play a video game. Or, it could be simply just letting them teach you something. If we are genuinely interested in the kid, he/she will know. We can also do this by keep digging. Teachers are often not told vital information so it is incumbent on us to push our Guidance staff, push our Administrators, and push our support staff. When we have the full reason, we can plan our approach out of empathy and respect, not out of power and obligation. Sure, you may lose some prep time or have to scarf down a lunch, but none of that compares to helping a kid find his/her way. They may present as disinterested, but that’s just their defense.
Just this week, I have heard stories of fourth graders upset about their parents’ divorce. I’ve heard stories of high school kids dealing with their family losing their house. I’ve heard stories about a kid struggling with his family to accept him for who he is. I’ve heard stories of kids afraid that their parents will be deported. Kids are bringing these issues to the classroom each and every day. It is our job to uncover why they are disinterested. If we don’t believe it, we are not only letting down these kids, we are failing as a profession.
Our profession is that powerful when we make it our problem, when we look for something more, and when we care enough to find the reason.