In my last post, I talked about one student who had a successful year and grew quite a lot in his mathematical ability and engagement. I also thought about another student for whom things didn’t go so well. Those are the ones who pull at your heartstrings, aren’t they? You try, but you don’t reach them, and you spend a long time wondering why and what you could have done differently.
This young man (let’s call him John) was always a mystery to me. He was a delightful kid every morning when he came into the classroom. He greeted me cheerfully, told me a story about his weekend, even brought me little trinkets like a cool rock he found in the yard. As soon as a lesson started, though, he would talk to those around him and shred his papers and supplies into little piles of trash in his desk. I try very hard to have many more positive interactions with kids than negative ones. I really believe in this. However, I rarely had positive interactions with John outside of our morning hellos. I was almost always asking him to get a pencil, find his supplies, move to this seat and that so he wouldn’t talk to his neighbors, or write something down so I could see what he knew. I would fill out his point sheet at the end of the day and really try to think of something positive that happened, but on so many days there just wasn’t much that went well. He did almost no mathematical thinking, the whole time he was in my class. I still don’t know if he has any sense of fractions or percents or negative numbers. He never showed me. He wrote what seemed to be random numbers on most parts of his assessments, or argued with the paraprofessional and didn’t finish them.
There were factors that made it harder to work with him… the class was a needy one, and many kids were needy but also hard workers – I can look back and tell I avoided helping John on many days, because I could help another kid who was eager and willing and not spend ten minutes with John to try and get him to put pencil to paper. The class was big, and I had chatty kids – I couldn’t turn my teacher eyes off of them long enough to make any headway with John. It took a very long time to get anything done with him even when he was in the mood to work, which was rare.
We had a couple of meetings with his parents, and they ended with a commitment from him to try harder, but nothing ever changed for long. I remember one conversation I had with John’s case manager in the hall. She was almost in tears. She had poured time and emotion and so much hard work into his education, and he fought and fought her. He demanded attention, acted out, and made it hard for her to work with kids who were engaged in their education. She had tried really hard to build a relationship with him and she was exhausted.
John did not make any measurable academic growth, and I still think and think about it.
What could I have done differently? What would you have done?
One failing on my part, I think, was that I leaned on his case manager and paraprofessional too much. I really should have scheduled some one-on-one time with him after school or during my planning time, to work with him on math when I wasn’t distracted by having a class in the room. With kids in Special Education, I always know they have a case manager who will go to bat for them, so I sometimes do less to advocate for them – I pass off the responsibility. John’s case manager was as devoted as they come, but there’s no substitute for just sitting down with a kid yourself and talking about math.
What do you do with “that” student – the one you aren’t reaching? How do you turn things around?