In June, after spending a year teaching abroad in China living on my own and somewhat successfully navigating the nuances of an entirely different culture, I moved back home. Yes, I joined the throngs of twenty-somethings who are migrating back to their childhood bedrooms and parents’ basements in the name of taking a job “for the experience.” I am one of the fortunate ones, however; though the word “intern” indeed features prominently in my job title and my paltry salary requires me to once again kowtow to my mother’s insane 11:57 curfew (although this would admittedly be a bigger deal if I actually had any social life to speak of), I legitimately LOVE my job as a middle school writing teacher.
Whenever I try to describe the exact parameters of my position, I struggle to pinpoint what it is that I do that will translate to something that sounds like “respectable and full-time” to normal people. My typical day involves floating in and out of classes, going wherever teachers need me to help with writing assignments or projects or almost anything else that’s school-related. While this can feel hectic at times, a benefit is that I have the chance to work with students of all grades, learning levels, and areas of interest. Often I work with students who are struggling with the workload or those who need some extra help understanding directions. About 80% of the time, this means working with “Trouble Kids”—those students who are constantly doing what they’re not supposed to do and who never seem to finish assignments on time. About 80% of those kids are sixth grade boys: hyperactive, hormonal, and completely overwhelmed by the new middle school environment in which they find themselves.
One student, Joshua*, is a particularly energetic sixth grader, the quintessential class clown. He seems entirely incapable of controlling his own limbs and will inexplicably pop out of his seat to punch one of his classmates, steal something with his tell-tale impish grin, or “dance” (read: flail somewhat rhythmically) behind someone’s chair. Joshua is a true attention hog and rarely listens or responds to his teachers’ corrective reproaches.
Joshua can be frustrating and horrendously disruptive, but as I’ve spent more time working with him, I’ve realized how readily teachers label “Trouble Kids” without listening to them. A few weeks ago, Joshua sauntered out of his math class into the common area where I teaching a lesson on the writing process. He didn’t seem to have a purpose but wandered listlessly around the tables and computers, generally distracting everyone with whom he came into contact. I already had twelve kids I was trying to keep under control, so I had neither the time nor the patience to spare for Joshua. But as I gave him my best look of exasperation, I saw that he was upset. While my students were working on an individual task, I took Joshua aside to ask why in the world he was just lounging about the hallway. He informed me that his math class had a substitute who had accused him of throwing things at other people or playing football or something—the details were delivered in fuzzy pre-pubescent speak—but the gist was that he had been wrongly accused and had simply been tossed out of class.
Now, Joshua certainly could have been lying, whether to foster sympathy or to avoid getting in more trouble. And I don’t mean to criticize the substitute teacher, because I know subbing can often seem like having your head stuck in a game of Whack-A-Mole. I wasn’t there. For all I know, Joshua could have been stabbing kids in the legs with pencils. Joshua’s track record suggests that no matter how minor his initial offense may have been, he probably didn’t listen to whatever warnings or instructions the substitute gave him afterwards. That being said, simply tossing him out of class communicated to Joshua that his opinion and story weren’t even worth listening to. His poor behavior was all but expected.
When I was in middle school, my family moved from California to North Dakota. Not being particularly adept at social transitions, I spent much of the first few months in our new home watching movies with my mom. One of our Friday night selections was the film “Loser” (a great choice for any socially inept seventh grader). While negligible in most elements of cinematic excellence including script and just all-around watchability, there’s one part of this movie that has always stuck with me. In the beginning, a young Jason Biggs leaves his rural home for the first time to head off to college in big, bad NYC. He is nervous and goes to his dad, played by that pinnacle of fatherly wisdom, Dan Aykroyd, for some life advice. To reassure his son with a friend-making strategy, Dan tells him, “Interested is interesting. Remember, every man has a story…. Listen to people’s stories, and they will like you.”
I would be lying if I said I didn’t care if my students liked me. It is a universal and particularly human weakness to crave that acceptance, even (or perhaps especially) from twelve-year-olds. But rather than using it to become popular, Dan Aykroyd’s advice has stuck with me as a helpful bit of pedagogy when I’m trying to reach kids in class, especially those like Joshua, and help them feel like there are adults who want to know who they are and will not just assess them based on their progress reports. Pausing to listen opens doors to magic moments when a student’s true character emerges.
For example, last week I was working with Joshua at a computer. I typed as we sat in front of the screen and he dictated to me (despite being the technological generation where everyone has an iPhone in fourth grade, none of these kids knows how to type on a real keyboard. It’s maddening). The assignment was slowly taking shape when suddenly Joshua remarked, “I wish superpowers were real.” Without thinking about it (I mean, that assignment was really late already), I said, “Oh yeah? What superpower would you want?”
Thus ensued a short but hilarious conversation about what type of superhero Joshua would be (apparently Homework Man, as his immediate answer was, “Super speed, so I could do my homework really fast!”) and why he thought he would want to control fire (his second choice). It was a small moment, seemingly meaningless. But when we finally finished his paragraph, Joshua logged off of the computer and gave me a big hug.
I’m not saying I handled this situation brilliantly, as there was doubtless a way to help Joshua feel someone was listening to him while still managing to keep him on task. I am, after all, just a writing intern who currently lives in a bedroom once decorated with Backstreet Boys posters. But I believe a lot of the classroom dynamic revolves around expectation; we expect certain kids to be diligent and others to goof off and drive us nuts. I worry that kids like Joshua have been hurt deeply by those expectations and have quit trying in school because they become convinced they can never overcome them. It meant something significant to Joshua to have a student-teacher conversation that didn’t involve any chiding or redirecting; it was a simple moment where he had the chance to share something about himself.
There are thousands of students like Joshua in America’s schools, kids whose constant need for attention is exhausting and often difficult for teachers to address because they have a classroom full of other students. Attitude is crucial when approaching these “Trouble Kids.” They need to know that their teachers are on their side and care about who they are instead of simply assuming that the student will annoy the bejeesus out of them at every encounter. We have to love every student, regardless of performance or behavior, not just with the love of a teacher determined to reach every kid but with the love of the Creator who stuck with each of us through our own sin and yes, even hellish adolescence. Showing interest in a student’s story can go so far, not only towards proving to a kid that a teacher cares, but also towards re-engaging that student in the classroom. We lose students when we label them with preconceived expectations of their behavior. Instead, we should show them we are interested in the people they are. If you don’t believe me, take it from Papa Aykroyd: interested is interesting.
Melanie Holland is a middle school teacher in St. Louis. Besides her first love, reading and teaching literature to squirrely thirteen-year-olds, she is a huge fan of baked goods, autumn, quality movies, Diet Coke and Cardinals baseball.
*Student’s actual name was changed for privacy