The reality and heartache of the impossible child.
Most of my kids were really great. They just needed the right opportunity to get their acts together. We adults provided those opportunities and we all got along. But, let’s face reality, I have to admit that I did encounter some kids who seemed impossible to reach. At least, that’s how it seemed.
One day early in the semester in which I began my sojourn at our CDS school a student walked into class and said, “Oh man! I should have stayed in.” So I asked him, “In where?” He replied, “In jail!”
I run a tight, goal oriented class but it’s not that hard, yet he preferred jail to school. Obviously there are some serious issues here that go way beyond the scope of this essay. I include it only to show how stubborn a child can be.
I must issue a mea culpa. The following story is about a child so difficult her classmates wanted her suspended from school. It has a sort of positive resolution but I feel I just got lucky in coming up with it. Thank God for Two Choices Technique.
The Student Progress Meeting
In an effort to improve instruction and our relationships with the kids, after each grading period all of us teachers would meet during and after lunch as a group (we were a small school). Then we would call in each student one at a time and review their progress. Some students were given high praise and told to keep up the good work. Most received a mixed bag of praise and questions about the subjects they were having trouble with. “You’re doing fine in Mr. D’s math class. Why do you think you’re failing Language Arts? How can we help you?” That sort of thing.
And then there were the hard cases, those students who could not or would not get with the program. They were unable or unwilling to help us fit the program to their needs. Each was their own version of the impossible child. No offer of compromise, no promise of reward or threat of punishment would get them to cooperate in their own success. Nadine was the most impossible of the bunch.
Nadine was probably the most contrary and disagreeable child I have ever worked with (read more about her in Busted for Shouting). In all honesty I have to say, I didn’t like her. None of the teachers liked her. As near as we could tell, she had the ability to succeed but she just refused. She was loud, argumentative and disruptive in every class. She’d shout at me that I wasn’t a good teacher but she wouldn’t open a book and she rarely did any work. She was the same in every other class so she was failing in all her subjects. She was so loud and disagreeable that other students asked to have her thrown out of school because they couldn’t learn with her in class.
So nobody had anything good say to her when we called her in to review her progress. Any honest evaluation of her work ethic or behavior (no matter how gently worded) sounded like a scathing condemnation. As each teacher took a turn reviewing her classwork and conduct she got more and more upset. By the time it was my turn to speak I had to wait. Nadine was in tears sobbing, “You people want to change me but that’s how I am.
“I can’t be any different.”
It was time for a dose of Socratic, Two Choices Technique to reframe her options. I said, “I see here in your record that you are active in the church. Is that true?”
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Tell me Nadine, do you ever go to parties with your friends?”
“Do you dress up for the parties?”
“Do you dress nice for church?”
“So you go to parties and you go to church. Do you wear the same clothes to church that you wear to a party?”
Nadine smiled, “No.”
Reframing Behavior: A Variation on Two Choices Technique
“You’re still the same girl yet you dress differently for a party than you do for church. I’ll bet you don’t act the same at church as you do at a party do you?”
She smiled again, “No.”
I concluded, “So if you can behave one way at a party and another way at church and you’re still the same person, I’ll bet you can choose to be a bit different here at school and give us more of the church behavior and less of the party girl, warrior behavior.”
By now her tears had dried and she had to admit it was at least possible to choose to behave a bit differently. Two Choices Technique to the rescue again – for a moment. Unfortunately, as critics of Plato will tell you, knowing of virtue and choosing to behave virtuously do not always go hand in hand. Nadine did not stay with us long.
Why this matters: Suspensions
This is a post about behavior and statistics. We are harangued by the school district and politicians and pundits to not suspend children. Our suspension numbers are tabulated and watched. We are told to avoid the appearance of racial bias. I don’t know how to avoid the appearance of racial bias when the overwhelming ethnic makeup of my classes was children of color – African-American, Hispanic and Asian (I did get the occasional white student).
But (returning to Star Trek) I ask you, “When do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one or the few?”
Nadine was African-American. Yet her African-American classmates loudly and regularly complained about her disruptive behavior and asked that she be thrown out (of class or school). They realized that they couldn’t learn with her in the room. But if we suspended her from class or school for her behavior, the statistic would simply read that another Black child had been suspended, and we as a school would be chastised for it.
Opportunities at an Oasis of Second Chances
We teachers are constantly told variations on, “Every child can learn. Every child can succeed. Let them follow their own path. Encourage them. Love them.” No one could succeed at or even endure working at a Community Day School (CDS) like mine without incorporating many of those lovely soundbites into their teaching philosophy. But we have to admit that at some point there are those individuals who are so damaged or misguided that they refuse any and all help.
We tried very hard with Nadine. The whole faculty regularly gave up our lunch hours to meet with students to help them. We gave Nadine every opportunity to succeed. I even got her to admit, calmly and without duress, that it was possible for her to behave differently in different circumstances (church behavior vs. party behavior). Yet she would not or could not moderate her behavior at school.
We tried love and kindness, high expectations, respect and the opportunity for self determination. Nothing seemed to work with Nadine. I use the word ‘seemed’ for a reason. She just wasn’t with us long enough to tell if we had any impact and I never heard of her after she left us.
This is the dangerous paradox of using statistics alone as an absolute judge of teacher performance or student outcomes. People change. We, as educators, don’t always get to see the growth from the seeds we’ve planted. That is one of the many heartaches of teaching.
Detour from the Highway to Hell
I have had students I was sure were ‘pedal to the medal’ in the fast lane on the highway to Hell. That’s how they left my class or school. Some got thrown out for behavior. Others were transferred and some went to jail. Many came back years later to thank us for things we had done or said. We saved their lives and now they now had jobs or were college students.
Many of those kids who now had jobs particularly came back to thank me. They had turned their lives around and they credited me with something I said or did that they hated at the time, but later – once they were living in the world of Planet Reality – they realized value in what I said and they felt obligated to tell me. Sweethearts!
Several students said they hated me when they first encountered me as their teacher. They admitted to giving me a very hard time. Some reasoned that it took time to get to know me. But time is always an issue in education. If, for what ever reason, we didn’t have the time to get to know each other, if we parted on less than good terms, it was possible for both of us to look like failures.
As a society we have to admit that there are those people (children and adults) who seemingly can’t be reached. There is no empirical test or statistic that can tell us if that person simply needs more time or a different approach or if that person absolutely can not be reached. It’s not necessarily a teacher’s fault if a kid doesn’t meet some benchmark of skill level or behavior.
Beware of over reliance on statistics. Remember:
Some people use statistics the way a drunken man uses a lamp pole: more for support than illumination.