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Giving Students What They Need and What They Want

By Peg Grafwallner
 | Aug 18, 2016

ThinkstockPhotos-475963836_x300It was five minutes before my first freshmen skills class of the day. I stood outside my door and greeted students as they walked in. When the bell rang, I moved away from the door to the front of the classroom. I began to share the learning intention with the class while taking attendance.

About 10 minutes later, Mike charged in.

Mike was a tough kid; rough around the edges and totally disengaged from school. Mike and his buddies caused enough classroom headaches that teachers were weary of them. He and I had, for the most part, a working relationship. He did what I asked him to do with a minimum of pushback, and I sometimes gave him space to do what he needed. 

This morning something was wrong. He was angry; his face was contorted and red. He stormed to his desk and sat down with a thump. I continued explaining the morning’s goal along with the pertinent skills. I asked students to take out paper along with their text.

Mike did nothing. I gave him a couple of sheets of paper and a pencil. He moved them aside and put his head down. I stood next to him and gave the next set of directions. As students were moving their desks to make teams, I leaned over and encouraged him to move to a group.

“Leave me alone!” he shouted into the crux of his arm. A few heads turned in our direction. 

“Mike,” I said softly, “join Devon’s group. You can follow along with him.” He lifted up his head. “I told you, leave me alone! Shut up and leave me alone!” he screamed.

Before the situation escalated further or the language turned colorful, I said, “Mike, let’s go in the hallway for a minute.” I turned to my class and asked them to please review their vocabulary notecards.

Mike stood up with such force that his desk tipped over. I followed him into the hallway where he paced back and forth. I gently closed the classroom door about halfway—wide enough to see and hear my class, but narrow enough to give Mike the attention he deserved.

“OK, what do you need from me?” I asked. I didn’t ask him what was wrong. That answer would come in time. I didn’t need to know what had happened. The situation would reveal itself eventually. Right then, I needed to know how I could get him to a place of learning.

Mike stopped, looked at me, and began ranting about his mother. There had been a disagreement that morning, and he left the house angry, hurt, and frustrated. 

I listened and kept quiet, focusing solely on him. I kindly reminded him to keep his voice down because I didn’t want to bother the students working in my room or alert administration. I didn’t want Mike to feel that his honesty would get him in trouble. This didn’t need to be another referral.

I didn’t correct his language, nor did I correct his feelings. He was angry at his mother, and I was the first adult female he saw that morning. When I asked him to join a group, I was one more person asking one more thing of an already stressed and disenfranchised kid.
When he was done, I asked him to quietly wait in the hallway. I went into my room, grabbed a paper cup and a hallway pass. I explained to my students that I needed to finish the hallway conversation.

Mike had settled down. He wasn’t pacing anymore but leaning against the wall with his head on his chest. I gave him the paper cup and began to write out a pass. 

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Go get some water. Take the pass and walk around the building. I expect you back in five minutes.”

“Wait, you’re not going to write me up?”

“For what? For being angry?  No. I need you to do the best you can to put this away for now. I need you in my room and focused. We’ll talk to the social worker later.”

“Thanks, Mrs. G.” he said sheepishly.

Mike returned to my room within five minutes. He joined a group and did the best he could to be the best student he could on this particular morning.

Could I have handled the situation differently? Yes—but I’m not sure how. I could have sent him to the office for being late to class—but he would have missed more learning. I could have called our Safety Officer and had him removed for his behavior—but to what end? Had I done either of those things, he never would have trusted me again.

The way I handled this situation caused Mike to rethink our relationship. Although it was acceptable; it became stronger. He never raised his voice to me again. He became tardy less often. And most important, I saw a change in his attitude. He was willing to be a part of our classroom community—whatever that meant for him. And every morning, there was an empty cup on his desk that he filled with water. It was my way of saying, relax, breathe, and focus as you begin your day.

About six years later, I had a visitor. Sure enough, it was Mike. He was working as a heating and cooling apprentice with his uncle. He came back to high school for the first time since graduation. He came back to apologize to me.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. G. I know I wasn’t easy. I know I gave you a hard time. Thanks for putting up with me. Thanks for listening,” he said awkwardly.

I knew what he meant. Nearly nine years later, Mike remembered what I had done. I had the chance to get it right and I did. I put my hand on his shoulder and thanked him for coming in and told him how much I appreciated his visit. He told me he was “in the neighborhood and decided to stop in,” but had to get to work. He thanked me again and left.

As he walked down the hall, I smiled. Thank you, Mike. He gave me the opportunity to know that I made a difference. Although all teachers hope that to be true with their students, many of us don’t get the chance to actually hear it. A cup of water, a walk, and a little humanity goes a long way for students like Mike—and for all of us.

Peg Grafwallner is an instructional coach with Milwaukee Public Schools.

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