“Mr. Danna is a Cook!” So said the message scrawled in one of the wooden desks in my high school 9th grade science classroom. Actually, the message had been altered by one letter to form the word, “Cook,” making the original word much less complimentary. A colleague had found the unedited message during her use of the classroom earlier in the day, and thoughtfully extended the “c” to make an “o”. I thanked her and then promptly moved the desk out to storage after school. Though I taught track three science classes in that room (yes, sadly we tracked students back then), my students were bright and capable enough of inferring the true message behind, “Mr. Danna is a cook.” And we knew it had nothing to do with food.
Despite that the incident took place early in my teaching career, it provided an important lesson about knowing your students, particularly the most challenging ones. No one likes to be called names, and I took it personally. After all, I invested many hours during my evenings and weekends preparing for my classes, and I loved my work and the students I taught. Granted, there were a few students that pulled at my patience, and yes, there was one in particular who in my mind made a point of getting under my nerves. In fact, I was convinced the student came to school with no other reason than to make my life miserable. Mutterings under his breath when I gave out assignments or directions for a lab. Notes written and passed to a friend when he thought I wasn’t looking. Talking back when I asked him to pay attention. And worst of all, disregarding my high standards for classroom rules and behavior. No doubt about it, this student was a teacher’s nightmare.
Punishment seemed the best option. Frequent detentions with me after school were my first line of defense. Unfortunately, he blew them off as he did my standards and expectations for him. Calls home were the second wave. Sadly, the phone rang and rang with each call, and when someone did finally answer, they immediately hung up when I introduced myself. Out of desperation, I began sending him to the office at the slightest provocation. The problem worsened and after more than a few visits to the office, the assistant principal called a meeting with me and the boy’s guidance counselor to discuss the matter. I was eager for the meeting to share my frustration and disappointment and to figure out a solution. I was in a for a surprise.
I considered myself a flexible, caring, understanding teacher who’d “been there” when it comes to finding trouble in high school. I had my share of detentions and calls home, and my mom was on a first name basis with many in the high school principal’s office. I wasn’t a bad kid, just one who had difficulty focusing, getting assignments done, and sometimes, making it to school. You could say I was an at-risk student teetering on the edge. I got it. I understood what at-risk meant, and was more than prepared to offer cogent solutions for my problem 9th grade student who was a constant source of trouble in my class and who I knew wrote the disappointing message in the desk. The student simply needed to change his attitude.
What I didn’t know before our morning meeting was the boy’s history and home life. I should have done my homework long before this meeting and gotten to know more about the boy, but hadn’t (There’s a reason New York State Standard One is Knowledge of Students and Student Learning). A mistake I wouldn’t make again. What I learned was two years earlier, the problem student’s father had left his family and they hadn’t seen him since. His mother now worked two jobs while trying to raise two adolescent boys, the youngest of which was in my class. My problem student had gone from being a solid B middle school student with few behavioral problems to a multiple failure student threatening to drop out when he turned 16. He didn’t like himself, his family, his school, or his teachers. He was a mess. Regrettably, I had taken his behaviors and his message inscribed in the desk personally.
It takes time to undo the damage one brings to a student-teacher relationship, but fortunately for my problem student and me, we had six more months together. With help from the assistant principal and guidance counselor, we brainstormed strategies to bring the student around. We certainly couldn’t change his home life, but we could find ways to bring some success and happiness into his school life, or at least into his earth science class. First and foremost, I stopped taking his disruptive behavior personally. When I saw him pass a note, rather than cast a spotlight on him and reprimand the behavior in front of the class, I’d just nonverbally look at him and subtly shake my head. I ignored the mutterings and complaints. His classmates were not bothered by them, so why make a mountain out of a mole hill. I also stopped calling home. Instead, I wrote bi-weekly update letters that were heavy on the praise and light on the criticism. Mom was overwhelmed as it was, and she too needed letters that brought hope.
Changes in the boy’s behavior were subtle, but they were there. He caught himself when beginning to mutter, and by spring, he didn’t mutter at all. His grades rose some, and he was scraping by with 70s at year’s end. Not bad. Best of all, on the rare occasion I did call home, now someone picked up to talk with me. He had a lot on his plate, and I had made it a point not to add to that plate. I don’t know what became of him after classes had ended. He wasn’t in our school the following year, so many things may have happened. I like to think he and his family landed on their feet somewhere in a new district and new setting. I hope and pray he found a good career, a loving family, and a sense of satisfaction in his life. As for the young teacher with a flair for culinary arts, I became more empathic and mindful of each and every student’s background, interests, and needs.