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Mistakes I Made When Dealing With Challenging Students

Kicking off the next six weeks of guest bloggers is John Thompson, a former inner-city teacher and self-described "anti-reformer." In a previous life, John was an award-winning historian before shifting gears to teach high school in Oklahoma City. In 2015, he published A Teacher's Tale: Learning, Loving, and Listening to our Kids, arguing that test-fueled reform is doomed to fail.

Yesterday, I recounted some of the difficulties I faced and mistakes I made in the early stages of high-stakes testing. I can't say I fought too hard to keep these mistakes from being edited out of A Teacher's Tale, but it's time to put a second account of some of them on the record.

I almost never fouled up when teaching class—or so I thought during the day. Whenever there was an unfortunate encounter, I'd only see my side of the story. My quality assurance method was to drink some beer after school. Unpleasant memories would intrude, and by the end of the evening I'd understand what I'd done. I'd apologize the next day.

As our school collapsed into anarchy, I could say chapter and verse where I failed Becky (as I call her). We were the lowest performing secondary school in the state and so overwhelmed that I don't know how I could have done very much for that sweet kid. When I'd ask her to stop talking to a classmate when I was talking, she'd reply, "D.T., we're not friends anymore."

My last memory of Becky was watching the sophomore frantically trying to befriend one 7th grader after another as they walked to the school bus. Her problem was easy to diagnose: She craved love. Overworked adults couldn't find a solution for such a shocking weakness. A few years later, after Becky left school, I witnessed an equally sad scene across a parking lot between her and an adult male.

But the most painful reading from what was edited out of my book was about two brothers, Dick and Rob. I'd had plenty of classes with numerous disruptive students, but Dick was the only individual student I couldn't manage. Even as the school was collapsing, our senior classes were better than ever. I had a gangbanger, Alex, who asked to transfer into my class and was showing real promise, but was starting to be distracted by Dick's nonstop outbursts. I couldn't have known that Alex had turned the corner and was focusing on college. Alex later explained that when I asked the standard question to the unruly student, "Do you value what we have in this class?" he decided to block out the disruptions.

Our class was full of legitimate college prospects who would have been virtually assured of success had they attended schools where the culture allowed for better instruction in all classes. But the transition to higher education would be a challenge and we didn't have time to lose to the routine classroom disruptions that teachers and students were supposed to blow off the way that the administrators wanted us to.

Dick's final referral followed a conversation I had with his classmates during a field trip to hear Beverly Tatum speak on "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" They urged me to remain patient. I now believe the students were right and I was wrong. I'm sorry to say that I wrote the referral and in this case it led to a long-term suspension.

The next year I was substituting for an absent teacher, meaning I had more leverage for denying entry to a disruptive student. Dick's brother, Rob, was in a frenzy one day and I suggested he sit in the principal's office.

Five minutes later, Rob asked to return to class. He reminded me of Dick's fun traits that had been overshadowed by his lack of impulse control. After doing his assignment, Rob sat next to me and asked, "Am I a coward?" He was involved in an ongoing conflict with another student. His mom had sent him to school with a battery inside a sock and told him to blindside his rival. Last week in the parking lot, Rob disobeyed his mother even though he had a free shot to take him out. So, "Am I a coward?"

I did not have Rob in my classes, but he was an unmistakable presence in the halls. We developed an up-and-down relationship. A few months later, I admit that my patience was growing thin as I discovered Rob loudly taunting a student. He ignored my instructions, and started taunting me. Rob finally pushed a principal too far, and was suspended for the rest of the year.

I knew I could have handled the situation better with Rob—and the one with Dick—but honestly, I couldn't decide what that approach would have been. Perhaps that is why I handled the next incident differently and made a worse decision, albeit one that was less consequential. I saw a chronic hall-walker throwing rolls of toilet paper down the hall. Disgusted by the situation, I turned away. Fifteen minutes later, I heard a shouting match between a teacher and my least favorite administrator. Hundreds of students had spilled into the hall, cheering on the spectacle. The teacher was less diplomatic than he could have been. The administrator loudly blamed him for the kid's response, and the students experienced one more meltdown of the school's social fabric.

That summer, Rob and I had a long conversation. He had no ill feelings about last semester. He was waiting for the summer school principal to decide whether he would receive another long-term suspension. Rob said he didn't want to be like his older brother, not being able to see further than ten feet in front of his nose while walking through Iraqi dust storms.

Despite the number of students in this post who were kicked out of school, it must be remembered that expulsions were very rare.

I'd love to make a deal with school reformers. We teachers would apologize for the times we did a lousy job dealing with our students' pain. They'd apologize for condemning educators for imperfectly serving students when they should have been working with us to find funding for the social-emotional supports that our kids are crying out for. Regardless, I'm deeply sorry for my shortcomings.

John Thompson

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