A Victory Lap

The year has ended, and as such, it’s important to reflect on what we as teachers have accomplished, as well as what we didn’t.  Today I’m thinking about an accomplishment. Every year as a teacher, we have “that kid.” You know the one I mean. The kid that pushes every button and tests every boundary.  And as all experienced teachers know, “that kid” is a year long battle that starts on day one and doesn’t end until the last bell rings on that final day. Sometimes we lose that battle, which means either the kid failed or somehow ended up spending the year in a space other than in our classroom.  Losing means the student never connected with us or with our content. I hate losing, but it happens. This year I didn’t lose. This year I won, so I’m going to reflect on how.

Let’s start with a bit about “that kid.”  This year, it was a young man who was into sports and proving that he was the alpha male.  To be honest, I found that trait a little endearing because this particular kid looks like a stiff breeze would blow him over.  Watching him try to out alpha me in the classroom was a bit like watching a puppy nip at a much larger dog. I’ll admit, that seems dismissive, but I think it helps to think of these kids as puppies.  It prevents me from getting angry or losing my cool, and the second you lose your cool with your trouble kid, they’ve beaten you. They’ll forever know they can get under your skin and they’ll aim for that same soft spot time and time again.  And that’s what this kid did, day in and day out; he probed for those soft spots. For an entire semester, he probed.

So let’s talk about that.  What’s it like to be challenged for an entire semester by a teenager? In all honesty, it kind of sucks.  If I came in excited about a topic or a discussion, I’d have to stop two or three times to get that kid back on track.  And when he couldn’t upset me with the standard fare, he’d try to get personal. So, as a teacher, I had to be on my toes every day.  He’d come at me with a personal insult, and I’d have to respond with something bold enough to keep him in line, but not too bold to hurt him.  Keep in mind, he could push as far as he wanted, but at the end of the day, I need him to be a student. I need him to feel welcome and safe in my classroom.  I have limits, he doesn’t. And boy oh boy, if he didn’t take cheap shots. And some of them stung a little, but every time I had to respond with a patient smile and a little, measured retort.  I made little responses, usually when he went too far, I spoke to him in the same way I talk to my four-year-old daughter. I sat down near him and said, “Hey, I understand that you’re having BIG feelings right now.  Did you have a tough day? Do you want to talk about your big feelings?”

I can go through a long list of things this student did.  Every time I addressed his behavior, he would accuse me of being racist.  I would calmly explain to him that I was holding him to the same standards as everyone else, but that if he truly felt that way, he was more than welcome to go to my supervising administrator and discuss my behavior with him.  Or we could have a parent teacher conference. I would say, “I am very confident in my behavior and willing to discuss it with your father, are you?” He dropped that line of argument about six weeks into the year after seeing it would go nowhere.  He then responded anytime I addressed his behavior by saying, “Why you always watching me, you gay or something?” To which I always responded, “I’m watching you because your past behavior has lead me to not be able to trust you in my classroom.” And that leads us to the second part to winning this battle.  Number one is always staying cool and laughing. Keep it in the back of your mind that deep down, this kid is just an awkward puppy trying to navigate the complexities of masculinity, and at this moment he may be wildly failing, but he’s not going to learn anything about the nature of masculinity through aggression and power.  So instead, I try to offer patience and confidence. I personally believe that’s a much better masculine attribute anyway.

So let’s get to that second thing.  A kid like this wanted confrontation.  He wanted aggression. Deep down, I think he wanted to fight.  I can speculate as to why this is, but my degree doesn’t delve into psychology.  All I can say is that somewhere down the line this kid learned that masculinity means dominance, and he came into my space to dominate.  This belief would rear its ugly head regularly. If I went to collect his phone for playing a game when he should have been participating in class, he would respond with, “You ain’t taking my phone, just try it!”  It was a boldly aggressive challenge, which I would have been within my right as a teacher to meet with similar aggressive language. But you have to remember, teenagers are so full of hormones and inexperience. They often get lost in a moment before they have a second to breathe or think.  So instead of aggression, I respond with patience and choice. I redirect the power from me to him. Instead of becoming force, I give the student the power he so desperately craves. “You can give me the phone, or I can call your Assistant Principal and have him come up here and get the phone.  But then it’s probably going to be a big deal. They’re going to give you a Thursday night school and make your dad come up here and pick up the phone. I was just going to hold it until the end of the period, but if that’s what you want, I’ll call your Assistant Principal. You sure? I mean, I guess, if that’s what you want.”  I’ve never made it to the phone in one of these situations with any student without them stopping me to hand me their cell phone. But you see what I did there, I made him choose. I handed him the power instead of forcing it from him. He got to save face a bit, and I was able to enforce policy.

And it’s gone on like this all year.  He’d push, I’d calmly respond. I’d consistently enforce policy, and consistently and patiently respond to every action he took.  Sometimes I’d have to collect a phone, or send him to the office, or write a referral, but I never lost my cool. And I never stopped being his teacher.  I never ignored him when he needed help. I never scoffed at his question. I never let his behavior on Monday affect how I greeted him on Tuesday. And then one day, a moment happened.  He had called me over for help, and I was answering the question he had, when he said something inappropriate to a peer that had to be corrected. Shortly after, he turned to me and said, “You hate me don’t you?”  And I paused for a second. Every push and pull throughout the entire year came down to this moment. It was a moment of clarity and honesty. I could see in his eyes that he thought I hated him. He thought that his juvenile silliness was enough to earn hatred.  It was telling to the life he must have led that he believed that hatred could be so easily garnered. I looked him square in the eyes and very seriously said, “I don’t hate you. I could never hate you. I’m your teacher. You just asked me for help a little while ago.  How did I respond?” “You showed me how to [do whatever it was we were doing].” “Would I have done that if I hated you?” I responded. With that, he just looked down at the floor. The bell rang and he left. The next day, I stopped him before he entered my room. I looked him in the eye again with that same look of seriousness and said, “It’s very important to me that you know that I don’t hate you.  It’s my job to teach and enforce policy and keep everyone in the classroom safe, and I will sometimes have to get after you to do that job, but I in no way hate you.”

And that for the most part was it.  After five of the six-week periods we will spend together, I have finally earned his trust or respect or whatever it was that I needed to earn to get him to sit down and do his work.  And I know, it’s a pain that I had to spend five terms working on this one kid. I had to overcome every ounce of mistrust and doubt and disrespect that this student had somehow developed towards male authority figures.  I could sit here and complain about that. But it must be even worse to be a young man that has a life full of circumstances that prevents him from trusting anyone until after he’s thrown down the behavioral gauntlet for several months.  I had to have patience and rise above this young man’s expectations of me for months just to get him to let me to be his teacher. But now I’m his teacher. I’ve won this battle, and this, like all of my battles, was an important one. And in a profession where we lose a lot, it’s important that we crow about our victories, and use our experiences to help each other claim victories.  So, with that, I wish you godspeed my fellow teachers, and many victories.

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