Just Watch


I was standing in the faculty room, listening to a colleague complain about a student. He is impulsive. He is disorganized. He challenges my authority. He offends me. 

Then a veteran math teacher replied with a comment I’ll always remember: “He’ll be your favorite by the end of the year. Just watch.”

He was correct.

And the reasons why are relational.

Let’s think about the student who challenges us. The oppositional one. The class clown. The scowler. The one whose absence brings relief. 

Perhaps the student is a ringleader with a negative influence on other classmates. “One of those kids who, as she goes, the class goes.“ (Time to Teach: Time to Reach p. 67).

Yet this same student is often the one we most miss when summer vacation starts. Why is this? What is it about the relationship that allows for such a transformation?

We spend extra time thinking about this student. Because we are relationally challenged by this student, we find ourselves ruminating on how to strengthen the bridge.

We strategize solutions:  As relational teachers, the importance we put on connection and trust-building drives us to strategize better ways to achieve unity with the student. 

We hope:  We use a foundation rooted in hope in order to draw out the best traits of our student. 

We allow for growth:  We realize that our students are changing every day. We use that mindset to feed our hope knowing that speed of change is unpredictable — yet we influence its direction.

We don’t quit:  We pride ourselves on our ability to persist throughout the year with all our students, even the challenging ones.

The challenging students take up more of our mental and emotional energy during and outside of the school day. This is why the “thank-you” we receive from the challenging student at the end of the year is worth its weight in gold. 

Frances W. Parker Charter School (MA) teacher Sara Bailey gives an example of how rewarded she felt after working with a challenging student. “I had a student who moved into a new grade mid-year. During the entire spring, I kept trying to make inroads with him in class. I would ask questions, solicit his direct feedback, to no avail. The poor guy was 13 years old and at a new school and here was this teacher hounding him to connect! But at the end of the year, I saw him in the hallway and congratulated him for his successful basketball season. In response, he flat out said, ‘I know I cared way more about basketball than school this year. Next year’s going to be different.’ The fact that he could say that and in 10 seconds share what needed to shift and how he planned to shift it…that’s pretty amazing.” (Time to Teach: Time to Reach, pp. 45-46)

Sara “hound(ed) him to connect” all winter and spring. Yet at the end of the year, she realized that her efforts were not in vain. This student demonstrated respect for her effort to motivate him. He acknowledged that this was hopeful work, and he responded with a pledge to do better next year.

Perhaps this example sums up why we often view our challenging student with positive regard at the end of the school year. In a real sense, we will miss the time spent working on this student. And we feel awash in hope’s realization — that the work we have done with all of our students deeply matters.

Nat Damon