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Some Kids Dare You to Teach Them

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By Rebecca Mieliwocki

Some kids dare you to teach them.

Damion was mine.  Physically, this tiny kid took up about four feet of space, but the sound and fury this boy brought with him consumed all the remaining air in my classroom. He strode in on day one and made a beeline right for me. He introduced himself and proudly announced that he'd failed virtually every class last year and had a frequent flyer seat in the principal's office. He said if I really wanted to know how bad he was to just ask Ms. Andrews, his 6th grade teacher, and she'd have plenty to say about him. "I made her cry!" Damion boasted. 

I chose not to chat with my colleague about Damion and instead tried to figure him out myself. After all, I'd seen the poster with the cute slogan. You know the one: "The kids who need love the most ask for it in the most unloving ways." I figured he was asking for something with his hurricane of disruption, sarcasm, and failing grades. I just had to find out a way to give it to him.

I wondered if there was something else going on with Damion because he was an African American boy. I worry that not enough teachers in mostly-white in schools like mine know how to help kids like Damion—kids who come to us differently, behave differently, who stand out because they are minorities. Kids like Damion often make us defensive because they challenge our beliefs, our instincts, our privilege, our ways teaching. I fear that we make decisions and heartbreaking assumptions about the Damions of the world that my friend Josh says "forecloses on their futures."   

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I'm going to admit I was a white teacher who didn't know what to do either. No set of pedagogically approved strategies rose up to reassure me. No course was clear. About the only thing I did know was what I was not going to do. I was damned if I was going to add my name to the list of teachers who decided this troubled kid wasn't worth every ounce of professional passion, expertise and commitment I had.  

It didn't take me long to discover how smart and interesting this kid was. Not only could he digest everything we read and discuss it at a much higher level than most 7th graders, he was blisteringly funny. The wisecracks and asides that flew right over the heads of his classmates landed smack in the soft spot I have always held for classroom jesters. 

I knew, of course, that this brilliant, wounded kid needed more support and higher expectations from his English teacher. I started making him come in at lunch to do the schoolwork he had so expertly avoided, and then I made him do it again when the work wasn't good enough. I even called home when he was absent and left messages on the machine for parents I never saw or heard from. When he tried to avoid the lunch sessions, I walked out to the basketball courts and dragged him back. A steady supply of PB&J's the only upside to the shame of having a teacher come for you on the courts. "Man, why you gotta dog me like this, Mrs. M?" he would say. "Enough already." 

After one particularly spectacular week of disruptiveness, I decided to pay Damion a visit at home. Both parents were working, as they did every day and night, to keep the lights on and a roof over their heads. That meant leaving this 12-year-old kid virtually unparented and in the charge of his older brother. Strung out on pot and a few weeks from dropping out of high school, his role model sat mindlessly playing video games on the couch. Damion didn't have a room of his own, a measly lamp, or even a kitchen table where he could do school work. Some nights, he sheepishly told me, there wasn't enough food to eat and he went to sleep hungry. 

Damion wasn't just a kid of color with an achievement gap and a history of failure. He had a resource gap, a role model gap, a nutrition gap, and an opportunity gap. This was the rest of Damion's story, the one he never told anyone and the one he covered at school with bravado and bluster. 

Every teacher gets a moment when they face one kid or a hundred kids just like Damion. It's in these moments your core beliefs are challenged and revealed. Do you believe that every kid can achieve? Do you believe that you as an educator have the power to make that happen for ALL kids, including the kids of color, poor kids, and those living in very difficult circumstances?  

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Too many times teachers decide that helping a kid like Damion is not their job. It's just too big and too hard. It's someone else's problem. Or worse, they make a judgment that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: these kids aren't going to amount to much anyway.  

Not every teacher believes this. With Damion I knew that I didn't have all of the answers, but I had better get to work. When we approach kids this way, we become telescoping ladders, extending ourselves to reach every kid no matter where they are and delivering to them whatever they need. Some kids don't need us to stretch that far to serve them, but some need us to go all the way, as far as we can, farther than we ever have.

You probably know how things turned out. No big mystery. Damion's Fs turned into Ds that magically became Cs and Bs. He went from the Dean of Discipline's office to the Dean's List. He worked so flipping hard, harder than he ever had, and I did too. Neither of us really knew what we were doing or if we were getting right until the end when both of us choked back goodbye tears on the last day of school. I've never hugged a kid so hard.

Seventh grade. Seventh grade (!) was the first year of Damion's academic life when he said he felt successful. Let that sink in a minute. How long do we make some kids go before they feel real hope at school? 

One tool that can help us is a series of short videos called Courageous Conversations About Race in Schools. They were released by the National Network of State Teachers of the Year to help educators, parents and community members to have authentic conversations that examine their own biases and improve how we treat our kids of color in school. I encourage you to take a look and take a risk, maybe hold a conversation during a PLC or in the faculty lunch room.

Some kids dare us to teach them. I dare us all to believe in them.

Rebecca Mieliwocki is the 2012 National Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). A 21-year veteran English teacher, Mieliwocki is currently on special assignment for her Burbank, Calif., district.

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