Sometimes reputations shouldn’t precede us. Maybe there should come a time when what we’ve done in the past doesn’t keep haunting us.
A wise mentor teacher once told me the biggest favor I could do for my students is to avoid holding grudges, to treat each class period as a new class period, each day as a new day. She encouraged me to work hard to see a student’s eruption of misbehavior as a single incident and to love my students despite their poor choices — even if those poor choices happen repeatedly.
That’s hard. It’s probably one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to work on as a teacher.
Because sometimes, some kids push my buttons. Sometimes some kids aren’t so lovable. Sometimes some kids are a moment-by-moment challenge, and responding to their behavior with grace, mercy and forgiveness is next to impossible.
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There’s one of those thorn-in-the-side students at my school. Her reputation certainly proceeds her. Just recently she entered the classroom upset about something, and when I saw this particular, notoriously difficult girl come storming into class with a scary look of disdain on her face, I thought to myself, “Oh great. Here we go again.” Before she sat at her desk, she sent her papers soaring with one angry swipe of her hand.
At first, I responded to her reputation, not her, if that makes any sense. With a tone of familiarity with her marred name, I asked why she did what she had done. She turned her back on me and remained unresponsive. I tried again with a heightened tone, and this time she answered in her normal derogatory tone.
“I just got ISS, but I wanted OSS,” she barked. ISS is In-School Suspension, while OSS is Out-of-School Suspension. Still addressing her soiled reputation, I replied, “I can understand. OSS is like a vacation, isn’t it?”
She quickly flipped around to face me and said harshly, “No it ain’t. I want OSS because this school is cold!” Everything stopped and almost instantaneously, I understood.
My tone changed.
I tugged on her hoodie, moved in a little closer, and asked quietly, “Is this the warmest thing you have?” She answered, “Yeah.” “You don’t have a coat?” She answered, “No.” “We need to get you a coat, dear.”
Then her tone changed.
She became a different person. She looked me in the eye, for one, and appeared sensitive, pleasantly surprised, and even innocent. She was accustomed to being snapped at, fussed at, and even rebuked, but this time the focus was on meeting her basic need.
My point here isn’t the need for a coat. Many of our schools’ coat closets are already bare, so we know there are hundreds of students shivering on their walk to school every morning. Rather, my point is that all of us, teachers included, have no clue what is going on in people’s lives that causes them to be hateful or to act disrespectfully. This young girl lashes out and misbehaves over and over again. And her logic behind OSS vs. ISS is warped, of course. But, she’s cold. I know when Jack Frost is nipping at my nose, I’m not in the swellest of moods. So, I get it.
So, when a child’s basic needs are not met, how then can we convince them that school matters, that behaving matters? We can’t.