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March 26, 2021

What Tough Students Teach Us

He was tall, slouched over, and donned a stocking cap the first day he walked into class. He was a sophomore and new to our high school. But clearly Grant* was not new to making a statement: he was not going to like school, this class, or me. And he was violating our school dress code to prove it. It took about two minutes for me read his staunch resistance clearly. It took about two weeks to realize he was serious. And it took nearly a year to win him over. Passive and unmotivated at best, belligerent and disruptive at worst. I long stopped asking him to take off his hat, hoping he would trade that olive branch for an attempt at completing something, anything.

Frustrated, I finally sat him down one day for a talk. But by talk, I mean I sat him down for a listen: me listening to him. I started to piece together his malevolence for school. As is often the case with disengaged students, there had been a long history of teachers misunderstanding his passivity for a lack of intelligence, and a pressure to be one kind of student when he hoped to be another. In short, even with the best of intentions, our school system had shut Grant down; his feelings of being typecast eventually gave way to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I gave him a chance to read exactly what he wanted (which would have been more than anything I’d been able to get him to read thus far) and write about it without being graded. Very slowly, we turned this into an act of reciprocity until one day he stopped wearing his hat. When I asked him why, he said (in a way I have always imagined Holden Caulfield to sound like), “I just don’t need it anymore.”

Grant was my greatest lesson this year. He reminded me about patience, about choosing the right battles, about the intrinsic motivation that can come from just a little hope. As you find your way to summer, and instinctively begin thinking about the lessons you want to teach next year, I hope you pause to think about who has been a part of your own greatest lessons this year!

* The student’s name in this blog has been changed to protect their identity.


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