My reflection on how my most challenging students have also been my greatest teachers.
It’s the most challenging students that you carry with you long after they’ve moved onto the next grade. That student who threw a desk at you, the one who cursed you out every day, the one who experienced schizophrenic hallucinations in the afternoon, the one who punched a hole in your wall, the one who cried and went into hysterics whenever you asked her to complete a task, that one who walked out the classroom throughout the day, the one so hungry for attention that you couldn’t get through an entire lesson, the one who ripped up every single piece of writing before he could finish, the one who used a laptop as a weapon and made sure you never left the room during your prep period again, the one who couldn’t stop talking for more than one minute . . . These are the ones that keep us up at night, the ones that often have undergone childhood experiences so unfathomable that even to speak of them out loud makes tears spring to our eyes and our voices so thick we stop ourselves from even bringing them up in conversation, even to our loved ones.
Such students drive us nuts while they are in our classrooms (and all too often, in our hallways). They are the ones rarely absent, the ones that disrupt the entire class dynamic and rivet everyone’s attention. They always demand immediate answers, they do not accept our authority unless it stands up to their own notions of justice, and they make fun of pretty much everything that crosses their radar, which usually includes students unable to stand up for themselves.
But it is these students that come back to me when I swap stories with other teachers. These are the students that teach me how to be a better teacher, and a better person. They have been teaching me what they had been put through, from their earliest days. They were sharing — in the only way they knew how to communicate it — something deep, and fundamental, and raw. And as I have grown to recognize those lessons, I have learned how to better love all of my students, and even — at the risk of sounding cheesy — how to better love humanity.
Children are constantly looking to the adults around them for guidance on how to navigate the constant bombardment of stress, anger, and anxiety, as well how to deal with conflicts with others. The sad thing is that we often are not ready to provide that guidance, whether due to competing demands on our attention, lack of professional therapeutic training, or simple lack of life and soul experience. Yes, I said ‘soul experience.’ This is that deep, dark place of grit that comes from overcoming life challenges that can not be faked and for a lack of which challenging children will call you out on within a moment in a classroom setting. If you can’t meet their challenge consistently, decisively, and with complete integrity, they will take you down into that wounded place of raw, bereft, acute despair within which they have had their formative experiences.
It takes a whole school to reach our most challenging students. It takes a staff willing to do whatever it takes to address that child’s needs, rather than abandoning them to a teacher already overwhelmed with the only slightly less immediate needs and demands of their other students. It takes a community that supports, nurtures, and cultivates emotional literacy. It takes a school that has the courage to acknowledge that for some students, the rules must be broken, and we can’t just punish our way into compliance, but rather must work carefully to cultivate warm relationships and a supportive, nurturing environment that slowly coaxes motivation from that student.
Though it’s hard to see it at the time, in the midst of all the negative conflicts and stress they put us through, we should cherish these challenging students. The students with exceptional learning needs. The students who have lived in shelters. The students abandoned first by their mothers and subsequently by a string of foster parents. The students who challenge us to love them, challenge us to care for them, challenge us to be the kind of educators that can believe in them no matter what — unconditionally — because that’s the kind of educators that they need.