Teaching: The Tough Students


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“My dad didn’t have paper or pencils. His parents could only afford one pencil and he used it the whole school year.”

These words came out of the mouth of one of my toughest students. He had been sitting across from me, working on an essay on immigration and why it’s good for America.

The week before, he’d been crazy in class – not sitting in his seat, saying he wasn’t “scared of” me, literally walking out the door and disappearing. It got so crazy that I emailed other teachers for advice. A plea for help – how do I deal with this student?

They told me some important things. Be nicer. Get to know him. Walk him through his assignments, if necessary, step-by-step. I’m lucky. I have great peers at my school. And I had him in study hall, so that gave me extra time to work with him on the assignment one-on-one.

So I helped him through it – I walked him through it! Every step. I explained his writing assignment – a paragraph summarizing his favorite movie, including all the key events. He chose “The Incredibles.” And then, something incredible happened. He started being nicer. He handed in his work. He didn’t act crazy or get really loud. I told him he could sit in my comfy desk chair if he stayed in his seat the rest of study hall. He did. He also asked if he was missing work. I told him if he came to serve his detention that afternoon, I’d help him with his essay.

By 3:30, I thought all the students were gone for the day. But sure enough, in the door he came, asking about his essay. I sat down with him and helped him support his claim – that deportation is stupid and illegal immigrants should be made citizens – with three reasons why he believed it. (The classic five-paragraph essay.) His first reason was that immigrants come here looking for a better life, because life is hard in Mexico. It was then he started telling me about his dad.

“He had to wear the same clothes every day.”

He opened up about his dad, who had been deported before, and told me how he was a good person.

“He looks out for other people and he always helps me out.”

And I thought, hey. Maybe that’s the key. Some kids are just looking for someone to help them out. They’ve had tough teachers. They’ve had mean teachers. They probably still do. But they need somebody, somewhere, who will look out for them, who will always help them out.

Now, my patience isn’t always at its best. But through that experience, I learned a valuable lesson. The more you do for your students, the more they’ll do for you.

In that one day, he wrote four paragraphs. He told me about his family, their time in Mexico, his dad working on the farm, what it’s like to worry about having your shoes stolen. Recently, he taught me a new handshake. And he gave me a peace sign as he walked past my classroom before he left.

“Bye, Mrs. Tessnear.”

I smiled and shook my head. I had learned something from one of my worst-behaved students. I had learned to try my best to understand them: who they are and where they come from. If you can find out where somebody comes from, you’ll understand them a whole lot better. And you’ll feel in your heart what I feel – a desire to see them succeed, no matter where they started out.

I believe they can all succeed. So I give my students pencils, every day. I give them what they need, because maybe, someone before them didn’t get what they needed. Maybe they’re just looking for somebody to help them out. I want to be that person. Not exasperated, impatient, unwilling to understand. It’s so easy to feel that way. But the teachers they remember are the ones who help them out.

At the end of the school year, that student wrote about his favorite teacher. No, it wasn’t me. I think we butted heads too many times for that. His favorite teacher was the one who “helped me out” and “understood why I acted the way I did.”

So that’s one of my goals next year: be the teacher who helps. The teacher who understands. I’m trying my best. Are you?

What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned as a teacher? Have you learned from your students? Please share your story in the comments!


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