Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Challenging Student

Every year, there's one student at our school who I immediately connect with. More often than not, this student has the following three characteristics: (1) extremely bright but does little school work, (2) regularly misbehaves in their classes, and (3) no matter how hard I try to connect with them, they still put up numerous walls of distrust that prevent any solid connection. Today, I spent time with this year's student and I think we may have had a breakthrough.

I first met this student last year as they arrived at our school mid year. Their departure from their previous school was never fully explained. As a mid year student, they slipped slightly under the radar for their first few weeks at our school. Shortly thereafter, as poor grades started to surface due to a lack of homework and classwork completion, this student made our team notes along with the parent-student-teacher meetings that followed. Somehow, while there were ups and downs throughout the rest of the year, they managed to sustain passing grades as the year came to a close.

Fast forwarding to this Fall, this student immediately became the concern of our teaching staff. Very little work was being completed in the classroom. More than just a few time outs were being spent outside the classroom throughout the day. The student was spending a few afternoons in the office, having been sent out for inappropriate behaviors. Their grades were quite low. Nothing seemed to be working.

I had met with the student a few times on my informal classroom and campus rounds. Words of encouragement were said but had little effect. Things were actually getting worse until a longer conversation was held in the assistant principal's office. It wasn't an easy chat to have but this student and I had what most would call a heart-to-heart moment. As we suspected, there were more than just a few layers to this child. Beyond the distrust and disinterest, there's a 12 year old kid who hasn't found his place at our school. I was sitting on the floor, looking at up at this student, asking for their help in their own success. I saw this student after school the following day and they were reading Divergent, a book I had given the student during our intense conversation. When I had given them the book, they said "wait, you're just giving me this book? I don't have to give it back?" Somehow, I doubt they had ever been given such a gift from an educator or perhaps any non-family member. It was a moment.

While I don't think we solved every problem in that conversation, the new few days were some of the best moments of this student's academic career. They began to turn in homework. They weren't sent out of any class. At lunch, they were acting appropriately with their peers. It was like everything was right with the world. Our conversation had made a difference. 

This lasted three school days.

At the end of the third day, this student was back to their old ways: missing homework assignments, daily behavioral issues, and general middle school defiance. I tried connecting again with the student but more walls had been built. I wasn't going to get through. It was time for the parent-student-principal conference.

I soon thereafter met with the student and their mother. While it's not uncommon for the principal at our school to take an active role in student-parent meetings, it was actually the parent asking for help at this moment. Using every bit of my five years of Spanish from my middle and high school years, I tried to mediate what turned into a parent-child argument about the issues occurring at home. It turned out that this student was struggling to behave appropriately home as well. I made some suggestions for the home (take out the television from their room, no video games during the week, homework at the kitchen table, etc) and the parent was very supportive. The student was not thrilled with the conversation but offered to work hard during the 2nd quarter with the agreement that they could earn back these privileges. All in all, a good meeting.

Again, this lasted three school days, if that.

Fast forward a few weeks and things had more than just fallen apart. We were at the crisis point. No consequence seemed to be working. This student was being escorted from 4th period to the office for lunch detention. They had been removed from homework center for inappropriate behavior. There was constant defiance of staff and the student's classroom responsibilities. Something needed to change.

So while this student was in the office for their third classroom suspension this week, I spent a few moments with them and the assistant principal. I asked the student if they liked being at our school. Surprisingly, I got a very quick and convincing "yes" from them. Knowing this, I then told the student a story of what happens with students who give up, who act out, and who don't want to be at our school. They go elsewhere. 

I paused. I let the words sink in. The student sat speechless. I suspect they wondered why I was willing to give up on them. After all, I had promised I never would, right? 

And I'm not. 

When I have a student who I've tried everything with, there's only one thing to do: try harder and try everything. 

I continued to tell the student of what their new school could like like, where I'll look to sending them. The student had a look of betrayal as I explained our next steps. The student began to negotiate on their future. "What if I do my work? What if I behave?" they asked. I responded by asking the student how I would ever be able to trust them again after seeing the faith I've placed in them fail after just a few days each time. The student tried their best to convince me but I refused to passively respond to their pleas. "I've heard this all before" I said. They asked what they could do to change my mind. I shrugged and left the room.

Honestly, I'm not sure what effect this conversation would have on the student. All I know is that as I passed by the conference room door and stole a glance at the student more than just a few times over the remainder of our 6th period. I saw one thing: a student working on their homework. Without any encouragement, prodding, or negotiating, this student spent the next 45 minutes working diligently on their work, showing more effort in this moment than the last few weeks combined.

I'm not suggesting that we've solved all of the pressing issues. It's going to take the counseling that we're providing, the constant care and compassion our staff is showing, and many more challenging conversations over the next few years. I just know that we're going to get there. I have one of these students every year and I've never had a failure yet. This is just going to take some time. It always does with the challenging student.

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