I can’t be that teacher to every student.
It took me a while to learn that. It’s easy to buy into the Hollywood super teacher mentality. It’s alluring and sexy. It’s exciting and makes for a great screen play. It’s also complete fiction.
I had my biggest failure as a teacher this year. It wasn’t failing to get my report cards done on time. Although I’ve done that. It wasn’t losing a kid on a field trip. Although I’ve done that too. It wasn’t setting off the school alarm and having a subsequent conversation with district security. Again, I’ve been there. It wasn’t even forgetting to put a kid’s picture in the school yearbook. Guilty again.
This time was a biggie.
He came to my classroom a month after school started. His indifferent face told me to keep away. I wasn’t used to such stoicism in a young kid, but I tried to be inviting and excited. I’ve learned there’s always a story behind the story.
I took his mumbling and lack of eye contact as shyness. He seldom wanted to join group activities or participate in class discussions. He seemed to be a bit of a recluse.
I would talk to him, pat him on the shoulder, and joke with him. I tried anything I could think of to encourage him. No effect. No response. I began to worry and knew this was a young person who was in need of help.
I kept at it for days, weeks, and months. I was stressing over him. My desire was only to get through to him. Sadly, he was becoming more hostile toward me. Little did I know the bricks he used to build his wall were laid in place long before his late start to 4th grade.
I went easy on him for the first two months he was in my room. Something was obviously going on at home. He didn’t need any extra stress from me. But the encouragement got tiresome after a while. And I hated that.
I had many a talk about him with my partner teacher. She’s down to earth, funny in the best of sarcastic ways, and a great teacher. She also had a pretty good rapport with this student.
“It’s because you’re a dude. Don’t take it personally. You know his home life,” she said. She was right. His eleven-year-old eyes had seen things that should never have been seen. My heart broke for him. But I was determined to get through to him. And I did get through to him, but not in the way I wanted.
I started to get tough. I was going to start laying down the law. Thoughts began swirling in my head: I was too soft. He didn’t respect me. He needed a strong male presence in his life. If he wasn’t going to talk to Mr. Nice Guy, maybe he would respect the Tough Guy Teacher.
So instead of pulling, I pushed. I pushed hard. And he pushed right back. Things got worse the harder I pushed. I was determined to reach him, though. Unfortunately, the opposite happened.
I completely lost my cool with him one frustrating spring afternoon. Our state tests loomed closer. The talkative class and my lack of sleep got the best of me. I pointed and yelled at him. I used sarcasm to shame him in front of the class.
Was he misbehaving? Definitely. Did he need a consequence? Probably. Did I handle the situation appropriately? Not even close.
What was his reaction to my adult hissy fit? He laughed at me. He looked straight at me, put the back of his hand in front of his mouth, and laughed.
That was one of my lowest moments as a teacher. At that instant I realized that he had won. I turned a connection into a conflict and lost disgracefully.
I wish I could tell you that we had an emotional heart-to-heart in the hallway that repaired our fractured relationship. I wish I could tell you that he began respecting me for the rest of the year. I wish I could tell you that he finished the year with a bang. But I can’t.
I distinctly remember one night in late May. I tossed and turned in bed. I was on the brink of tears worrying about him and what his summer was going to be like. I can’t remember another time feeling so helpless about a student.
I wasn’t that teacher for him. And that has to be okay, because that’s the way teaching goes sometimes. We pour until we are empty. We burn until we are ashes.
I have to cling to the hope that, although he was my biggest failure, I still helped him in some way. I pray he’ll find a teacher out there who will truly make a difference in his life.