3.7 Our students: Not just ours, and not just students
Originally posted February 21, 2006
William hated me.
There were small signs of animosity during class — his refusal to follow instructions, constant challenges to any assertion of my authority and open expressions of how I was “boring” and “dumb.”
But the out-of-class indicators were even more frustrating. One-on-one conferences, intended to explore issues and build relationships, were completely fruitless. He would stare at the floor ignoring any attempt at conversation, preferring instead to mumble an occasional “Can I go now?” If he ever made eye contact, it was to stare me down. In those moments, his quiet “Can I go now?” would become an outright defiance. “You can’t keep me here forever, Ms. Smith.”
I was at a loss.
I had tried being positive. I had tried being insistent. I had tried exploring the root of his anger toward me. Finally, when my individual attempts to reach him failed, I enlisted the assistance of others. I contacted his father, who said he would “talk to him” about his behavior. I spoke to a guidance counselor, who revealed only general insights about his history in school. I referred him to an administrator who, after speaking with him, offered simple confirmation of my growing suspicions. “All he would say, Ms. Smith, is that he doesn’t like you.”
The situation went from frustrating to frightening the day he skipped my class, preferring to roam through the hallways. I knew he was at school that morning, and so when he didn’t show up for fourth period, I paged the office to notify the administration that he was missing. When the assistant principal found William and told him that I had reported the truancy, William grabbed a pair of scissors and swung them with enough force to lodge them in a thick wooden door. After surveying the damage, William turned to the administrator and told him, “That’s what I’d like to do to Ms. Smith.”
I had no say in what happened to William after the incident. He had threatened a teacher. Following policy, the administration notified the police and then had William expelled. But after he left, my questions still lingered. What had gone wrong? How had I inspired such hatred? What more could I have done to identify and address the issue that had led to such an act of violence from him?
A surprising answer
The answers came during the first ten seconds of a meeting with William’s father. Although we had spoken on the phone a number of times, his trip to campus following the “scissor incident” was the first time we actually met. Upon seeing me, his eyes grew wide with simultaneous shock and understanding.
“Oh, no.…I can’t believe it.…You must be Ms. Smith.…”
While recovering from his own surprised reaction, he revealed that I looked exactly like his wife — William’s mother — who had died a few short years earlier. Her passing had left William feeling abandoned and angry. Seeing me every day had been way too much for him.
I relay the story both because it was an emotional part of my first year and because I still find it unsettling. I also relay it because it taught me something important about working with students. William may not have learned much from me, but I learned a few things from him.
It’s not all about school
I learned the importance of meeting the parents in person when there is a long-term issue. I learned to trust my gut when it tells me something different is happening with a particular kid.
But the main thing I learned is that sometimes, in spite of your best efforts, you never know what is really going on with a student. We often forget that they have lives outside of our classrooms, and that those lives may be difficult. Not every behavioral issue is rooted in how we’ve decided to manage our classrooms. Some issues stem from outside events with emotional components that our students bring in.
So what do we do? There are practical steps such as consulting school counselors and administrators about helping students who have emotional issues. Please do that if you have concerns about a specific individual in your class.
But on a more personal level, serve your students by simply remembering that often, the most difficult students are the ones who are struggling with the most difficult issues. Even when they frustrate you, try to respect who they are and what they might be facing. Keep expectations for them high, while acknowledging that they may need assistance from you or others in order to meet their full potential.
And finally, as you continue working to improve elements in your classroom, remember that not every school issue was born in the school building. It isn’t healthy to internalize every management failure. Examine the rough patches in an effort to smooth them, but give yourself a small break by internally acknowledging that not every misbehavior is a direct response to something you did.