“What seems to us as bitter trials are often blessing in disguise.”
- Oscar Wilde
Remember my post about the student I got to know during a field trip? After that trip, his work ethic did NOT improve. On the contrary, he did less than ever. Nothing I tried made a difference.
His M.O. would be to sit there and do nothing at best or to look for excuses to walk around and disrupt others at worst. As soon as he’d try to sidetrack my class, I’d send him out of the room for a break. I was frustrated.
A few days before Christmas break I’d finished a discussion with the class. They were supposed to have their notebooks and textbooks open to answer questions. When I reached this student, he was perusing the pages of an atlas.
“That’s not what we’re doing now,” I said, removing the offending material. I stood above him until he pulled out his books and pencil from his backpack. When I checked on him again, he’d done nothing. I directed his eyes to the paragraph where he could find the first answer. A few minutes later, I looked for progress and found none. Aggravated, I called his mother and left a message on her answering machine.
When I turned around, he was picking up items on the teacher’s desk and talking to another student.
“You can decide you don’t want to work, but you’re not disrupting other students.”
He marched out of the classroom.
The most diligent student in the class stood up and pleaded with me. “He has a hard home life. He needs someone to sit with him and help with the work.”
I sighed. “I know he does, but so do a lot of people in this class. He can’t try only when I sit with him.”
Then I asked my recently acquired Special Ed teacher (I have her three classes per week) to keep an eye on the students. I walked over to the student in the hallway standing at a window.
“Is something bothering you.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Do you have someone you can talk to about it?”
“Do you want to have someone to talk to about it?”
I hesitated before speaking again.
“The thing is, if you’re not happy at home then school should be a refuge. When I was young, I had problems at home and school became my refuge. But if you’re not doing work in your classes, then you’re butting heads with your teachers and you have no refuge.”
He didn’t say anything. He didn’t look at me.
“When we went on that field trip, I had a good time talking to you. I liked getting to know you. It was a nice change from reprimanding you when you don’t get your work done.”
He snuck a glance at me.
“I want you to know, I’m here. I’m in my office early everyday. If you ever want to come in to catch up on work or have me explain material you don’t understand, then come in. Or just hang out. That’s fine. I can even stay after school if I make arrangements.”
I patted his shoulder just as the bell rang.
When I returned to the classroom as the students left, I told the Special Ed teacher what I’d told the student. She sort of cheered me up by telling me he didn’t do work in any of his classes.
The next day, I spotted the student coming down the hallway. Usually he meanders with a frown. This particular morning he smiled at me.
I had the group again last period. When I finished our discussion, I told the students to open their textbooks and notebooks to answer the three questions. Because it was the last day before break, I’d given all the students an incentive - as each student finished, s/he’d get a piece of candy.
When I checked on the student who hadn’t been working the previous day, he said, “Can I sit in your office and answer the questions?”
My office is next to this classroom. I’ve sent him in there before, but he’s never actually completed any work in there. But I said, “Sure.”
A few minutes later, he left my office and brought his notebook to me. THE QUESTIONS WERE COMPLETED.
I beamed. “You are the first person to get candy.”
Then I showed his work to another teacher, who in turn complimented him.
I said, “Since you’re done, would you like to look through the atlas?”
He leafed through it for a few minutes and then talked to the teachers in the room about constellations. Animated. Happy.
"I've been trying hard all day. I even did work in Science for the sub," he explained near the end of class.
“Remember this feeling,” I said. “When we come back from break, don’t lose this momentum.”
I don’t run. I’ve heard of runner’s high, but I’ve never experienced it. I hate running so much I doubt the existence of a “runner’s high”. But at that moment and for the rest of the day, even as my head nestled into my pillow, I was on a teacher’s high.
I’m not naïve. This isn’t one of those movie moments when the teacher changes a student’s life irrevocably. But that day he changed mine. From the experience, I realized how important teaching is to me. The students’ lives are woven with my life whether I want them to be or not. It’s not just about material content and state standards. It’s relationships.