Every Kiddo Has a Story

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” -Plato

6th period, after lunch, end of September, the honeymoon of “beginning of school” has passed.  Kid in my junior class (because now that I am angry, he is no longer a student or a person, but a nameless jerk) decides that he doesn’t like it that I marked him tardy for the 18th time this year.
Me: “Sorry, but you were here at least a minute after the bell.  We have to get class started.”
Him: “Whatever.  It’s stupid.”
I know he is baiting me.  I know he is trying to challenge the school-wide, enforced all the time, not-new-to-anyone-in-the-room policy.  I feel the air shifting as his classmates, halfway caring, tune in wondering if I’m gonna take that.  I elect to move on and start class, while he shrugs me off, slumps into a seat, and puts his head down.
There is no reason for me to let my temper fly, but now I have it in for this kid.  “Could you please get out your homework?  We’re looking at it right now, and I would like you to be able to be with us.”
Him: “I don’t have it.”
I think I probably don’t have to write the rest of what happened, because many of you have been there.  There are a number of endings to this conversation/confrontation, but here’s the one that counts:  I found out the next day that his father had committed suicide two days earlier.  He was trying to cope his way through the arrangements, and the fact that he hadn’t seen his father in two years was certainly complicating things.  He was staying at an uncle’s house in the interim, and wasn’t able to gather his stuff together to be organized when he came to school.  Just his presence at school was an effort.

I had this perception that when students missed homework, lipped off, or generally defied my expectations, that it was very personal.  They hated me, they disrespected me, they hated my subject.  I got sucked in once in a while, and ended up in a power play with students.  My colleagues and I would gather and vent about students who just didn’t get it.  It would be so much easier, we thought, if we would KNOW when kids are going through tough stuff, then we would know whether to handle it gently or as a behavior issues (implying, of course, that behavior standards wouldn’t be altered).  I brought this idea of open communication to my principal – isn’t there any kind of system that we could set up where we would be in the loop with kids who are struggling with something bigger than school?

His response was simply, “Why should that make a difference?”
The momentum behind this issue suddenly shifted.  He was totally right.  I had to treat each student with dignity, no matter what.  I was missing a key component in my classroom – every student has a story, and I should just assume that.  The message was loud and clear: my personality in the classroom should always be compassionate.
Does this mean I should forgive the tardiness?  Excuse disrespectful or just bad behavior?  Absolutely not.  I firmly believe in reinforcing policies and rules, and expecting much out of students.  How I do that is so important to the moral of this story, though.  I can be an adult, and not allow students to bait me.  I’ve had a lot of practice at managing my emotions, so I can automatically revert to compassion.  I can check in with students regularly to see how they are doing.  I can ask, when students are tardy or slumping in their seat, “Are you ok?”  Handling high school age students isn’t all that different from handling younger students, either. There should always be an air of caring and compassion when we interact with all human beings, and what better way to model that than by treating our students this way?
My school did get better at communicating when we knew students were struggling with larger issues in their non-school life.  This scenario happened in my first two years of teaching, and I grew wiser, thankfully.  That one message resonated and stuck with me.  Plato’s words were so true, and so very pertinent for educators.  Our students depend on us to model the kindness they always deserve.
Do Good Work.

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