—Jennifer Orr, teacher, Annandale Terrace Elementary School, Annandale, Virginia
Different Circumstances, Different Student
One of my 6th grade students had severe attention problems. He was at least three grades behind in reading, and he caused trouble in every class. One day we went on a field trip to the zoo, and this student was in my group. At one point, I lost sight of him. As I looked around frantically, I noticed he was just ahead of us, concentrating intently on reading the signs in front of one of the exhibits. He was so well behaved that day. This incident reminded me that when students are engaged and interested, they have a huge capacity for learning and focus. I wish I could have taken him on a trip like that every day of the year.
—Sarah Shah, reading specialist, Achievement Preparatory Academy, Washington, D.C.
Find Out the Real Story
Several years ago, I worked in a high-poverty school district. We struggled to impress on students the importance of school attendance. As a result, the district adopted a tough "no-excuses" policy on truancy.
One 10th grade student missed school every Monday and refused to provide a reason. Concluding that she simply liked long weekends, we initiated disciplinary proceedings. After talking with her further, however, we found out the reason for her absences. Each Monday, she would wait for the family's public assistance check to arrive in the mail, cash the check, and go to the grocery store to buy food for her family. If she didn't do this, one of her parents would cash the check and use the money for drugs, leaving nothing for food. Rather than being irresponsible, this student was helping her family survive.
My experience with this student taught me to listen more than talk, ask the right questions, and approach students who might be considered "difficult" with kindness and respect. It's amazing what they can teach you if you give them the chance.
—Scott Herrmann, superintendent, Bannockburn School District 106, Bannockburn, Illinois
"Mahina, we need you to come over and join us, please." It's early October, and we're getting together to do a shared write, an edition of First Grade News. Mahina, sitting not too far from us, does not look up; she continues cutting out her fabric. This behavior is actually a step forward—she has spent much of the first couple of months of school crying, huddled under a table, or trying to escape into the hallways to wander the building. Everyone in the school knows who she is and helps us keep an eye on her. Today, though, she is totally engaged in her poster. Spread out in front of her are scissors, glue, paper, a small pile of fabric pieces, and a box of markers. I decide to leave her alone.
After 15 minutes, we finish our shared writing, and the kids are released to read and write. Mahina eagerly calls some of us over and shares what she has created. Triangles, squares, and other fabric shapes bring a colorful doll to life on the paper. She had an idea and wanted to demonstrate a different way to make meaning—through her art. I'm glad that this time we let her be and trusted her to follow her passion.
—Brad Buhrow, 2nd grade teacher, Boulder Valley School District, Colorado
Noticing Right Away
At the beginning of 1st grade, Oliver was almost a full year behind in reading. When we started working together one-on-one, he would do anything rather than look at words on a page. One day he put his head down on the table and wouldn't look up or talk. I tried wait time, coaxing, cajoling—no response. Finally I told him he had to go back to his classroom. He stood up, head hung low, and left the room. I felt like crying.
When I picked him up the next day, I said, "Oliver, I couldn't stop thinking about what happened yesterday. I'm sorry. I think you were feeling frustrated and maybe a little nervous about that book and didn't know how to tell me. From now on, I'll try to notice right away. Will you try to tell me if you're feeling worried?" He did. And I tried to help him feel safe with words. I taught him to read. He taught me, too.
—Katie Gordon, reading specialist, Region 12, Roxbury, Connecticut
Beyond the Stumbles
She stumbled through every line of the oral reading excerpt. She transposed letters. She skipped whole lines. She repeated words. Although she was a 5th grader, her fluency was that of a 2nd grader. But then she aced the comprehension section. So I tested her at a higher reading level, and another, and another. Despite her visual and verbal stumbling, I realized that I had a very bright student on my hands. I learned that it's important to assess a student from multiple angles and to do it one-on-one.
—Scott Hayden, director of curriculum and instruction, International Community School, Bangkok, Thailand
A Student Who Questions Everything
Jordy was a gifted student who was, by choice, in a regular-level geometry class. He questioned every point that was deducted from any assessment. He asked me to rework every problem. He challenged me mentally and academically every day. But in a letter that he wrote for me later, he stated that I was the only teacher who ever cared whether he understood or not. It taught me to always hold students accountable for their learning.
—Lisa Taylor, curriculum coordinator, West Monroe High School, Ouachita Parish Schools, Louisiana
Create a Climate for Sharing
After I had shared a favorite book as a read-aloud (Lucky Horseshoes: A Tale from the Iris the Dragon Series, by Gayle Grass, about a girl with ADHD), a student volunteered that he, like the main character, had encountered challenges at home and school because he couldn't "keep his thoughts quiet in his head." "It's my ADHD taking control of me," he said, "but I'm learning how to take the control back." The lesson I learned was to develop a strong rapport from the beginning of the school year to allow students to take risks and share openly about their personal challenges.
—Wendy Olson, special education teacher, W. D. Sutton School, Thames Valley District School Board, London, Ontario
Show That You Care
No lesson I have learned about kids has been more valuable than one I learned at Wrigley Field, of all places. Near the end of my first year as a teacher, one particular student began to shut down. I pushed him every way I knew how—I was nice; I was mean; I was loud; I was soft; I talked to him in the hall; I called him out of study hall; I held him out of practice. The student's grade went up (slowly), but our relationship, which had been positive, deteriorated. By the time school ended and he graduated, he had not spoken to me in weeks.
Weeks later, I saw him working as an usher at a Cubs game. Not only did we speak, but he moved my entire group down to better seats. During the conversation, I told him I was pretty sure he had hated me toward the end of the year. He said, "I did, but now I realize you just really cared about me." The bottom line with kids is just to care—even if at times you seem to care more than they do.
—PJ Caposey, principal, Oregon High School, Oregon, Illinois
During my first year of teaching, I had a 7th grade student who refused to do any work. I kept telling him, "If you don't do the work, you'll fail and have to repeat the 7th grade." I believed in teaching personal responsibility. But when I saw him the next year sitting in 7th grade, I realized that his learning was my responsibility, too, and I had failed. I've spent the rest of my career trying to find the keys to engaging the at-risk student.
—Lori Batts, supervisor, Wicomico County, Salisbury, Maryland
Hang in There
Midway through the year, one student decided to fight me on everything, displaying all the attitude an 8th grade girl could muster. I did everything I could think of to restore the good relationship we'd had at the beginning of the year, but things continued to get worse. I finally went to the principal requesting that she be transferred out of my class, but received a "no." The next day, I took the girl out in the hall, sat down next to her on the floor, and forced a conversation. I told her that obviously neither of us really liked the other, but we'd have to figure out a way to survive the rest of the school year. There were no dramatic changes, but things started to improve—maybe because I had confronted the reality of the situation. By the end of the year, we'd reached a tenuous truce, and she moved on to high school.
The next fall, the girl's mother called me and asked if I'd be willing to keep in touch with her. A brother had been sent off to Afghanistan, and other family problems were making the situation at home tense. The mother said that for some reason, this girl felt a connection with me. I was happy to send an e-mail expressing my support. We e-mailed back and forth for a while, saw each other a couple of times to chat, and then the relationship ended.
This girl is out of school now, but a month ago she surprised me with an e-mail stating that she still remembered our relationship and the support she'd received from me. Hanging in there with students, even when the going gets tough, is worth it in the end.
—Kirsten Hutchison, principal, Comfrey, Minnesota
Positive Attention Counts
I had a student who assumed that whenever someone called his name he was in trouble—and he would go on the defensive. I made sure that whenever I complimented him, I said his name. Gradually he realized that when his name was called, he might be getting a compliment. From this student, I learned that maybe that "problem child" in your class is consistently getting a stream of negative attention. As educators, we need to make sure we acknowledge the small victories with everyone involved, especially the child.
—Ed Beckmann, 8th grade communication arts teacher, Hazelwood Central Middle School, Florissant, Missouri
Students Want a Better Life
One 11-year-old girl who had an unstable home situation had received a long-term suspension for repeated fighting. I had gotten to know her and had earned her trust. The social worker recommended sending her to a more restrictive school environment, but her guardian resisted the idea.
When the girl came to see me to discuss this decision, I told her that I understood both sides, but if she were my daughter I would advocate for her to go to the other school. She said to me, "If I was your daughter, I wouldn't be in this situation." I will never forget what she said. It taught me that no matter how young students are, they are aware of the life they have been dealt, and they often wish they had better.
—Greg D'Ambrosio, assistant principal, Robert J. Kaiser Middle School, Monticello, New York
Valuing the Present and the Future
Some students are challenging because they seem to live only for the moment, without any concern for the future. But recently I realized that we can learn something from students who have this attitude. On March 2, 2012, a tornado damaged our school building and destroyed much of our town. One student who had typically had an "I don't care" attitude shared the story of dealing with the effects of the tornado at his home.
I learned from him the importance of living each day as if it were the last. He learned from me the importance of education and planning for the future because of the risk of losing everything to an unpredictable disaster. The events of March 2 changed both of our views. In preparing for the new school year, I hope we both remember to stay focused on each day by living for the moment while also preparing for a successful future.
—Troy Albert, principal, Henryville Junior/Senior High School, Henryville, Indiana
Learning to Keep Cool
There were times early in my teaching career when I lost control with students who pushed my buttons. Reflecting on those experiences taught me that I must treat all students with dignity and respect and learn to recognize the reasons behind the challenges students present. How we handle difficult situations in school is not altogether different from how we handle them out in the world. Even if we are frustrated, angry, or hurt, everyone—adult and child alike—deserves to be treated with compassion and understanding. Although those values had been instilled in me by my parents, it took losing my cool with middle school kids to make me truly understand the consequences of my actions.
—Cindi Rigsbee, regional education facilitator, Orange County Schools, Efland, North Carolina
Helping Students Persevere
Ellen defiantly refused to go to the special education teacher, proclaiming, "I ain't dumb and I ain't going!" Ellen's reputation for unpredictable outbursts preceded her, and I had no clue what to do. So I allowed her to stay, and at the end of class I visited the guidance department. We decided that Ellen could stay in this junior English class if she could make a passing grade; if she could not, then she would need to go to special ed. She agreed.
Ellen was a socially and emotionally challenged girl who was over the usual age for her grade level and had had no exposure to things we take for granted. The challenge was to teach her proper classroom behavior and etiquette along with the academic curriculum. Together, her classmates and I accepted the Ellen challenge. She wasn't dumb; she just did not know what she did not know. Ellen taught me and her classmates that with perseverance and honest effort you can overcome life's obstacles and learn. She not only passed junior English but also passed senior English the next year.
—Pat Clark, associate professor of graduate studies, Lincoln Memorial University, Harrogate, Tennessee
Relationship Is Everything
There's always a story for every challenging student. I have learned over and over that investing time in getting to know them, showing sincere care, and going the extra mile in understanding and supporting their individual learning needs almost always breaks through the barriers. Relationship is everything. If they feel valued as individuals by a teacher who is passionate about what he or she teaches, they are much more likely to engage. Of course, firm limits, consistency, and a sprinkling of humor are important, too!
—Nicole Williamson, coordinator of middle years learning, William Clarke College, Sydney, Australia
I Just Want to Be Heard
Alex made my life difficult. Although he was in high school, he had trouble staying in his seat or staying focused for more than two minutes, and he could quickly disrupt the class. The more I talked with him, the more I realized that he had a lot in common with my two-year-old at home, who would throw temper tantrums. Both of them wanted to know that they were listened to and understood.
After I started making more time for writing conferences with Alex and finding out what his interests were, he started to improve. After several writing conferences focused on his interests and goals, he wrote a piece comparing different types of pit bulls that was detailed and thoughtful and made us both proud. Alex taught me that the most difficult students are the ones who need us to listen and care the most.
—Marie Levey-Pabst, teacher, Boston Public Schools, Massachusetts
One of my students had a history of multiple failures in the lower grades. Now he was entering high school, where his problems would no longer be glossed over. One of the things he could not do was multiplication. Every day, we spent 3–7 minutes working on multiplication facts. Once he began mastering the 144 facts, we started graphing his progress. He loved seeing his improvement, and I learned what a powerful reinforcing tool the graph is.
—Susan Brown, consultant teacher, Monroe BOCES 1, Penfield, New York
Boundaries Engender Respect
As assistant principal in a small suburban high school, I work with many students who have behavior problems. One student had a severe writing disability as well as extreme hyperactivity and borderline conduct disorder. In response to every teacher directive, he would respond, "Why?" and badger the teacher to get what he wanted. He would leave class for long periods. Teachers dreaded having him in class, and most people walked on eggshells around him.
I assigned him an escort to keep tabs on him all day (which he hated) and even separated him from his peers to work on behavior. Although he held a grudge against anyone else who reprimanded him, with me he was always respectful. I asked him why, and he said it was because he knew that I cared about him. He knew that I gave him boundaries because I really did like him and cared.
—Sandra Intrieri, assistant principal, Dobbs Ferry High School, New York
Focus on Meeting Students' Needs
David moved to our school midway through 6th grade, after it was determined he was no longer homeless and was a resident of our district. He was small for his age and felt he had to prove he belonged. He would make poor choices and then strut like a peacock, behavior not exactly endearing to his teachers. As an administrator, my challenge was getting my teachers to see beyond the troubled kid from the trailer park who came to school with dirty hair and ill-fitting clothes—to understand that he was communicating his needs through his behaviors. I learned from David that I have to help teachers see the big picture while looking individually at students so that all their needs are met.
—Melissa Pogue, principal, Edgewood Junior High, Ellettsville, Indiana
Letting Go of "Control"
When I taught middle school, I learned that trying to "control" students didn't work. The few times when I thought I had succeeded in controlling them, I realized that the cost to our relationships was far too great. Instead, I learned to listen to students and to appreciate them for who they were. In doing so, I quickly found that classroom management fell into place and I had no need to try to control my students after all.
—Allyson Olson, director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment, South Sioux City Community Schools, Nebraska
Listen to Their Stories
The biggest lesson that I've learned from teaching special education at the junior high level is to listen! By taking the time to listen to your students, you gain their trust and willingness to respect you and the rules in your classroom. Everyone has a story, and by knowing each individual story you will understand students' behavior and start to accept that it is not personal. That's hard to do, and it won't work every time, but as teachers, we know that it is our job to meet the needs of our students—not the other way around.
—Amy Van Hoogstraat, special education teacher, Rochester Junior High, Rochester, Illinois
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