Lesson Learned The Hard Way

I have always had to work at building relationships with kids; I tend to be hyper-focused on the task at hand.  As a habitual over-planner, I never quite finish a lesson, and if I do, I can’t stand to let a second go by without engaging the students in learning.   Somewhere in my career, I had an evaluator that drilled this into my psyche.

This year was a challenging year, but by far the best I have had in my career.   And in particular, one set of students gave me hope that I could outlast the system, complete my 80 points and maybe push beyond a few more for extra credit!  Almost daily, this group of kids left me willing to give a moment to chat on a side conversation that had nothing to do with the objective.  They were a quick group of kids who would do anything I asked of them, and if they couldn’t quite get the concept or skill I taught, they would give it their all.  Trust was the foundation of the class that I had built. I consistently told them there were no right or wrong answers when writing, and they believed me.  They were truly the highest achieving group of scholars I have had the pleasure of teaching to date.

As the year wound down, as to be expected many of the maturing adolescents pushed the envelope, testing the teacher if you will. Arriving late, exploring the opposite gender, watching for probing eyes to see if I saw them holding hands or pecking each others lips as they embraced in young love and separated in the hallway to float to their individual classes for the period.  Most of the time I let the behavior slide.  It is normal and nothing worth scratching the chalkboard over.  Spring had arrived, and they were on their way to growing up and making decisions for themselves. I chose to monitor from the margins with a raised eyebrow or a smirk-like grin that noticed them that I was watching.   But I digress.

One of the students in that particular class was a young lady who was always on task with opinions on target ideas and responses in every seminar, for every assignment, and all assigned activities.  She was one of my favorite students to be exact, hyper-focused like me.  After a week or so of testing the appropriate arrival time to class, albeit a tough class period to get to having to juggle a boyfriend and the freedom that lunch gave her at the same time.  Nevertheless, she had spent a couple weeks arriving sporadically tardy, and she had begun to gather an entourage, so naturally I decided to call home.  She abruptly stopped that behavior the next day. Word from other teachers was that she stopped arriving tardy to their classes as well.  Done and done I thought.  I thanked her the next couple of days so she would get her positive reinforcement.  I even called home again, offering praise to her parent and the child for a job well done. We were good.

The last few days of school snuck up on us. My kids figured out quickly that I wasn’t giving any free time, and the final projects were completed without much time to spare.  My hyper-attentive student completed her final essay and had time to linger over the new titles of picture books I had placed in the Browsing Books stand.  She lounged in the beanbag chairs for two days while her peers maintained their focus.  Everything was running like clockwork as planned. 

Then the yearbooks were delivered.  Kids began to pass around their books for the customary collection of signatures of friends and teachers alike.  I am generally asked by only a few students to sign yearbooks, and when I do, I always sign by my picture.  On the second to last day of school, the young girl asked me to sign her yearbook, and naturally I opened the book to the faculty page.  And there, struggling to look back at me through blacked out eyes and scratched out face was my picture.  A first for me, and a shocker at the very least!  In a split second I pushed my heart up from my stomach and asked the young lady if she had done that to her book.  Without hesitation she said, “Yes.”  It was obvious that her honest nature responded before she realized what she had said, and it was even more obvious that she had forgotten what she had done.  In an instant she could only say, “but….” before I cut her off replying, “I can’t sign this.  I have nothing positive to say,” as I gave her the pink sharpie and her closed book.  We both walked away silently from where we stood.                                                                            

Fortunately for both of us, she had been invited to a pizza party during our class period, and she left with head hanging and no response to me when the second lunch bell rang and she was invited to leave with my smile and a “have fun” send off. 

On the last day of school, the seating chart was a jumbled mess, as the games I had waited all year to pull out were scattered around the room and students were sitting playing with their favorite friends.  I had to call out names to facilitate taking roll.  There was no response from the young lady, and I marked her absent. I immediately thought what a shame that she missed the last day of school.  Had she been that embarrassed?  But when counting faces the numbers were off by one.  Recounting, I noticed her sidled up trying to be small next to one of her peers.  She hadn’t answered me.  At that moment, my heart just broke; I couldn’t understand why she was so angry with me.  I thought we had a good relationship.  How could a simple phone call about being tardy have hurt so badly?  I had been sure to tell her mother that she was a great student, always on target in discussions, a pleasure to have in class. Or, second-guessing, was it even that at all?

I let it go as any middle school teacher might recognizing that the adolescent mind is a hard one to figure out, especially at the end of a school year.  I hadn’t harmed the child, and I had done my job.  She would let it go as the dog days of summer went by.  I continued packing the room for the summer cleaning, letting the kids enjoy a day of play and leisure.  Then the bell rang for the last class meeting of the day.  Wishing all a great summer as I stood by the door giving fist pumps and high fives to those who wanted them, she was the last to arrive at the door.  Meekly she looked at me and asked if she could talk to me.  I walked into the room shutting the door so the incoming students would not enter and we could have a least a few seconds alone. 

Her hands were empty. No pen. No book.  Just her and me.  I towered her by at least two feet.  The moment was awkward, but she was able to squeeze out an “I’m sorry.”  And in that instant without hesitation I grabbed her and gave her a big hug telling her thank you and that I thought we had a better relationship than that.  Then immediately I closed with, ”I care about you deeply. Have a wonderful summer.”  I choked back tears as I let her go watching her ooze out the door.  Then I welcomed the last class of the year.

It was a fitting end to a 23-year teaching career of middle school students.  Up until that moment, there has never been a year when I felt I really had achieved my best teaching. I think I hit the climax of my career that day.   I have decided to teach high school next year.  I am wondering if they will be as forgiving as this student was to a human who teaches lessons the hard way.  

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