I’ve been having trouble with a kid we’ll call Miguel. Miguel is a sweet kid. He wants to succeed in school, his parents want him to succeed, but he has a hard time. He’s very talkative, both in class and out. He’s also grade levels behind in reading and math, and he tends to have difficulty focusing for extended periods of time. We got off to a good start this year – I love the energy he brings to class – but as the year wore on, his behavior took a turn south. Motivation waned, and impulse control practically disappeared. Loud singing, drumming on desks, sometimes just noises. In a two-week period, three or four students seated near him independently asked me if I could seat them elsewhere, mentioning him by name.
As a side note: Grant Wiggins (of UbD fame) recently blogged about a teacher’s experience shadowing a student and what it actually feels like to go through a school day. The post wasn’t earth-shattering, but it certainly contained some welcomed refreshers about good teaching practices (e.g. kids are sitting for so much of the day – get them moving around at least once per class). Most teachers in the U.S. – myself very much included – don’t have the kind of schedule where they can take a full day to shadow a student, but there are other, similar paths to achieve this kind of empathy.
So, back to Miguel. I’d gone through the gauntlet of approaches with him:
- a variety of different seating arrangements
- quick, quiet conversations at his desk
- a lot of positive encouragement
- slightly longer chats just outside the classroom door
- affective statements (statements detailing how action(s) or incident(s) affected the speaker, like the new-age “I statements,” meant to evoke empathy)
- disappointed glares
- general nagging
- “threats” to call home
- actual calls home
I try to keep discipline between me and the student as much as possible, but I was reaching the point where I felt other adults should be involved. At that point, my principal e-mailed me this:
Maybe it is time that the two of you have a 1:1 outside of the classroom? Go to 7-11 together? Go grab a sandwich?
Great call. I made the offer (a sandwich, since due to the unpleasantness of most of our recent interactions, I figured a soda might not be enough to convince him to spend more time with me than he had to by law), and he seemed sufficiently confused. They expect the carrot and the stick, but not a sandwich. It reminded me of a Dan Meyer post I read a while back that stated, “the best discipline starts by taking the obvious prescription and heading as fast as possible in the opposite direction.”
Miguel took the bait, and we were off and running. Throughout the 40-minute trip to the sandwich place, I think his confusion only grew. I’m sure he was waiting for the part where we were going to talk about his behavior in school, but it never came. Why would it? We’d had enough back-and-forth about classroom behavior; he knew what I wanted on that front and telling him one more time wasn’t going to do much.
This was a chance for the two of us to just be humans and eat lunch. Like any lunch, if it goes well you learn a little bit more about the other person and build – gasp – a relationship. I’ll leave the details of our lunch out, but I gained a ton of respect for him, what he does for his family and the metaphorical weight he brings to school every day. As it turned out, when I was sharing a particularly unusual detail about my family upbringing, he actually stopped me and told me it was true of him as well, and that I was the first adult he’d met where that was the case. He proceeded to tell me all about it. I enjoyed the lunch thoroughly.
So here’s where Wiggins fits in. He advocates for teachers getting a better sense of the student experience, seeing them beyond the empty vessels who enter their classroom for 60 minutes per day. That, I did. Miguel was a totally different kid in this sandwich shop. It’s way too easy as a teacher to not see the human in each kid when they are DERAILING MY PERFECTLY PLANNED LESSON!
I’m sure I seemed different to him, too. To Miguel, I probably was coming off as a guy whose life goal was to single him out, which I’m sure is off-putting, to put it mildly. Students don’t get to have too many normal, non-academic conversations with their teachers – you know, things humans do. Now that we had a nice dose of the other’s humanity, perhaps Miguel and I might just think twice before adding a dose of misery to the other’s life (Yes, it’s a two-way street. It was clear that I was making him just as frustrated as he was making me). Perhaps “affective statements” might have more of an impact now that the parties involved care a little bit more about how the people involved are affected.
Now would anything be different once we left the sandwich shop?
It’s too soon to say, I suppose, but just today I received this e-mail sent from another of his teachers to me and the student’s academic mentor, who has also been working with him (posted with permission and names redacted):
A ton of kids came into my class like hellions today, just very loud and too much energy to settle down. Miguel walked in so quietly and calmly, and when I asked the class to chill he pulled me aside and told me that he was behaving because he was a good kid now and that was something he was working on.
Don’t know what this looks like in the long term, but something you guys have been doing is really clicking with him and y’all should be proud! Nice work!
Off to a good start!
What a educational story. So glad you told it.
Sent from my iPhone
Leyna Bernstein said:
This makes me rethink a conversation I need to have with one of my staff members. Thanks, Z! Teaching me, too.
Jerry (your cousin) said:
Happy birthday, Z.
Miguel is fortunate to have you in his life. Though time will tell, your “sandwich moment” may be life changing. (I’m reminded of Dr. Lee Lipsenthal’s book “Enjoy Every Sandwich”, which I recommend to everyone I know.)
With the demands of lesson plans and other time constraints, it’s a challenge for educators (as well as doctors and all “human service professionals”) to be mindful of the human “being”, rather than the human “doing” of those we serve.
You had the luxury of taking Miguel out of his “doing” context, which is often a pretty digital and Pavlovian world, and into that of his analog “being”. What a better and easier world it would be for everyone if we could all (especially those in urban public schools!) do that!
Sometimes, it’s not about having a lot of time or the ability to change the environment. It’s about the instant of meeting the person where they are so they know that, beyond whatever challenge they’re experiencing, they have value. With Miguel, you’d explored all those options and needed something more.
Forty years ago, I had a student named Jim in a high school class. Jim would sit in the back of the room doing basically nothing, occasionally being disruptive, and evoking anxiety in me (“I hope he’s not here”) each time I walked into the classroom. He eventually dropped out of school and got a job as an orderly working at St. Mary’s, the local hospital. In my world, Jim was a slug. A few years later, I ran into Jim at the local drinking establishment. I said hello and asked him if he was still working at the hospital. He said “I am at the moment; I’m in medical school”.
Miguel will never forget you.