Working with Difficult Students

Working with Difficult Students

I Am A Hopemonger.  Are You?

Our students arrive at school complete and perfectly human. That is to say, they arrive as people in flux. They are on a journey. Our classroom is a stop along the way. It is a privilege to be with them for the time we have been given together and we must make the most of this opportunity.

Some people will have arrived from a pleasant place. Their journey has left them shining. I love these students. Others will have arrived from some place less pleasant. Their journey’s been more challenging. They’d like to shine but are not sure how.  I love these students, too. A few will have arrived from a place that wasn’t pleasant at all. Their journey has left them tired and discouraged. They, too, would like to shine, but have forgotten how. I love them, as well. Then, there are always people who’ve arrived from an awful place. Their journey’s been so hard they’ve come to believe they can’t shine. I love these students most of all.

It’s my job to make everyone shine and I’ll do whatever’s necessary to make that happen. I don’t need to worry about those people who’ve arrived from pleasant places. It’s the ones who’ve come from awful places who are harder to love as they display the destructive strategies they’ve used to get this far. It is how they have survived and they do it perfectly. They are not failures.

My calling is to learn where they came come, what it is they aregood at, and who they believe themselves to be. I may have to spend some time on my knees with them. I may even need to hang out with them in the smoking areas, squatting down beside them, but I will do it. I will get them to understand that they have arrived in a good place. I will pace them, build rapport with them, and as I get them to trust me enough, I will model new strategies for them — strategies they can use to replace the ones that are no longer necessary because they have arrived in a good place. None of this is easy, but it is the real work.

The student I love most right now is into dangerous sports, dresses in a style that says I’m scary, and works hard at being an unlovable outsider. Almost all of his teachers have written him off as someone with a bad attitude. They don’t care that he is one of the top BMX riders in Asia. I doubt they know how loyal he is to his crew or about his troubled relationship with his father. I know and I care.

It took a year to find that out, squatting down beside him until I could get him to stand up beside me.

Last semester he was told that because of his bad attitude he wouldn’t be able to join his classmates on a study abroad trip. His first reaction was to drop out of school. I was devastated, but I understood his reasons as he explained them to me. The other day I was so happy to see him on campus. He’s back and when I asked him why, he shrugged and said as he touched my shoulder, “I’ve got friends here. Anyway, how’s your heart? ” Better than ever, I told him.

In his essay Confessions of a Hopemonger, Herbert Kohl writes that “within everyone, no matter how damaged, hostile, or withdrawn, there is some unique constellation of abilities, sensitivities, and aspirations that can be discovered, uncovered, or rescued. The concept of failure has to be eliminated from the mind of the teacher”.  I believe this to be absolutely true.  At the end of the same essay, Kohl confesses: “I am a hopemonger, and I have also been accused of caring too much about students who other teachers have written off. “

I confess. I am a hopemonger, too. Are you?