He may be right; I may be crazy

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He is late again today. In fact, despite my repeated warnings, he’s been coming to class later and later as the semester nears its end: 30 seconds after the bell rings has become 1 minute, 2 minutes… today it is closer to 5. He tries to slip into his seat when I’m not looking – as if I won’t notice with only ten kids in the class. Then, like most days, a few minutes later he casually saunters up and asks to use the washroom during our reading time. He’s driving me crazy.

The EAs I’ve worked with over the years have told me that I am too slow to respond to these minor transgressions, that I should send kids to the office earlier and more often. I need to be more strict. I hear this. I hear, too, what these kids are asking “How far can I go? What can I get away with? How much does she care?” I care a lot. And I should be strict, but I want to know the why behind the transgression. I’m a sucker for the why.

“I’m worried about you,” I tell him.
“Don’t be,” he shrugs. “It’s not like I miss anything at the beginning of class, anyway.”
I bite my tongue and wait.
“What’d I miss?”
I raise my eyebrows.

See, the truth is, he’s kind of right: he doesn’t miss much content in that first minute, though I pretty much always start on time. We use the beginning of class to connect, to set the tone, to share, and, of course, to talk about books. But he’s not interested in being part of the class, and he doesn’t want me to know him. If he’s late, he doesn’t have to learn about his classmates and he can stay disconnected.

“Why do you care so much about 2 minutes?” He eyes me warily.

I have to think about this. I mean, I knew the answer before he asked, but now I need to answer for him. Why do I care so much about him being in class on time?

“Well…” I hesitate, and my voice trails off. “I’m worried.” Hmm. I already said that. I’m not making a good case for myself. His chin juts forward and up, but his eyes go down. I take a deep breath and the truth tumbles out.

“I know you’re bored. But you’ve got a good brain. And I think you might be bored because you’re not engaged in the work we’re doing, or in school, really. I see you skimming around the edges, cutting corners, breaking little rules to show that you don’t have to do this. That you’re not involved. And I’m worried. Because I want you to be interested in something. I want your brain and your heart, and you’re not sharing either. You think it’s about a few minutes; I think it’s about you learning.”

He’s not impressed. I’ve said shorter versions of this before.
“What are you even talking about? I was, like 2 minutes…”
“5 minutes,” I really can’t help interrupting.
“Ok, 5 minutes late. Like 5 minutes.” He’s shaking his head.
“Today. And yesterday. And last week. And what about tomorrow? And you don’t put your phone away when I ask. And you do the writing I ask for, but you don’t share it. And you read when we’re talking and go to the washroom when we’re reading. You have a lot of ways of making it clear that you are not following the rules, that you aren’t one of us.”

He is quiet. I may be right, but he thinks I’m crazy. I’m asking for something way beyond just following the rules. I’m interested in more than just his compliance, and he knows it. We both wait.

“Do I have to stay after class?” His question is a whisper.
I know how much lunch means to him. I know how he needs his friends, how he needs to move. I know I should be stricter earlier with these minor transgressions. I know that punishment rarely leads to engagement. We appraise each other. I see such potential in him, such possibility. I wonder what he sees in me?


Finally, I sigh. “I guess I don’t know anymore. Can I think about it?”
“Yeah,” he says. And then, as he’s turning around, “Thanks.”

It’s the “thanks” that gets me. I don’t keep him in at lunch. And I hope he’ll be on time tomorrow, but he probably won’t be. He may be right: I may be crazy.

Update, Wednesday morning: And… he was late again today. But he was in a good mood, and he sat down to read without complaint. Baby steps?

 

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20 thoughts on “He may be right; I may be crazy

    1. Hmm… not sure my students would agree with you – want to come supply for my class and share your theory? I’d love to sit in that discussion! (That said, it’s the truth, isn’t it? We’re rarely late for things that are important to us.)

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  1. I believe you are somewhat of a rarity, and that said, I see a little of my educator-self in you and your approach here with this student. But, know this you are letting him know you care. He’s getting that – he let you know when he thanked you. Will he change his behavior? Probably not, but maybe you’ll get him to think about what he’s doing and why he’s doing it a little more. Thanks for sharing this very personal reflection.

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      1. I hope things continue to improve. Yes, probably baby steps is all you can expect. I just celebrated a small victory with one of my students, in that for the first time, he volunteered to share his writing with the class! This was just minutes after I had asked him to share and he declined. I did not push but told him he had followed directions and done a nice job. A few minutes later he volunteered to share his writing! Yay!

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  2. I love this piece. This student won’t remember what you taught him about reading and writing, but he will remember that you cared. And that’s the stuff that really matters.

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  3. So well-written; so real. Your words here remind me how much relationships do matter .. you responded with wisdom and honesty, which he realizes, even if he doesn’t admit it. I have to say your title phrasing made me smile, with its BillyJoel overtone; forgive me for responding (albeit sincerely) in lyric manner: Don’t stop believin’…

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  4. Wonderful piece of writing! The best thing I’ve ever learned through being a parent (and wish I’d understood this better as a teacher) is that behavior is communication. One reason we do such a poor job in schools of resolving problematic behaviors, IMO, is our insistence on a model that tries to change the surface behavior without trying to understand what it’s all about, what need the child has and is expressing, and how we might help them meet that need. It’s really interesting that he’s late more often as the semester comes to a close. Will he have you as a teacher next semester? I am wondering if he’s drawing back as a protection because he’s going to miss your class? I am not at all in favor of disciplinary interventions to behaviors like this. Relationship is what wins out and changes behavior over time, and you model that so beautifully in your teaching and your writing!

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    1. It’s funny how hard it is to remember that behaviour is communication. I know it – though it took me a while to learn it – but in the moment, sometimes I forget. Sigh. I don’t know if this particular kid will miss my class, but I am fairly certain that he knows a) that I care about him as a learner and a person and b) that I am trying. That’s going to have to be enough because the semester ends on Thursday & then we’re into exams. I hadn’t thought about him withdrawing as protection… going to have to consider that one.

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  5. You had me right there alongside you the entire time. I admired the way you communicated your feelings and connected with the student. He may have been late on Wednesday too, but maybe if you keep the dialogue open, things can change in a few weeks.

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    1. Ah, except that the semester ends on Thursday. Sigh. So many things I don’t like about the semestered system (and some that I do, admittedly). The good news is that I’m relentless in continuing to connect with students even when they are no longer in my class. Little does he know… 🙂

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