Everyone has a story. As teachers, we are constantly in pursuit of uncovering the stories of our students. What I love most about teaching is that I get the opportunity to plug into their lives, tap into their potential, and then wonder how my time with them will impact their lives and futures. Here is a story about this 4th grader.
She has thrown around foul language more times than I can count on my fingers. She has been blatantly disobedient and disrespectful to well-respected teachers and admin team members on our campus. She has lied, roamed the halls without permission, and has been removed numerous times from her classroom.
One day, my principal asked if she could join the other 4th graders that I pulled for math lessons. Knowing her reputation, my mind was screaming, “Ab.So.Lute.Ly.NOT.” But my heart quickly took over and I said, “I’ll let her give it a shot. But I refuse to allow her behavior take away learning from my other students.” My principal smiled and said, “Thank you. I’m curious to see if you can breakthrough her walls.”
The next day, this student enters my room. She finds a seat at the verrrrrrry back. Throughout the lesson, she did not participate in any of my math songs and chants. She refused to do any work at all. In fact, she spent the entire lesson messing around with my computer and microphone equipment in the back of the room, screaming into the microphone whenever she saw an opportunity. Not. Okay. When I passed out the exit slip for the math lesson, she just sat there with a smug smile on her face. Then, she looked me straight in the eye, scratched something on her paper, lifted her pencil dramatically and SNAPPED IT in half.
After dismissing the other students, I walked over to her and read what she wrote down before breaking her pencil. “I am stupid.” I looked her in the eye and she’s still smiling, appearing to enjoy the scene she created and how it will make me feel.
(Kneeling down to see her eye-to-eye)
Me: How do you feel about school?
Student: I hate school. It’s stupid. I’m stupid.
M: Well, I noticed you were playing with my computer and microphone equipment back here. You seem to be good at understanding how technology works.
S: (shocked that I wasn’t yelling at her for that, then retreating back to her challenging mode): No. I’m stupid.
M: I don’t think you’re stupid. I think you’re just afraid to show everyone and yourself how brilliant you are.
M: What do you want to be when you grow up?
S: (sassy tone) Poor.
M: C’mon. You’ve got to come up with something better than that.
S: Nope. I’m going to be poor.
M: Okay, well having that garbage in your head is not going to get you anywhere. I see something special in you. In fact, I see greatness in you. You’re smart. And you have talents that I am excited to discover. And with math, I can help you. My room is a safe place to make mistakes. Mistakes help us learn and grow. But in order for us to continue, you need to say this: “I am ready to give my best effort.”
S: No. I’m want to be poor.
M: Okay...how about, “I am ready to try.”
S: No. I want to be poor.
M: Hmm, you know what. You may re-enter my room when you say, “I am ready to be MORE than poor.”
S: No. I want to be poor.
M: Okay, then I can’t help you just yet. I care about you, and I am here to help you when YOU are ready to be helped. You will stay in your classroom for math until you change your mind. The choice is yours. I’m here when you’re ready. Your ticket back into my math class is to say, “I am ready to be MORE than poor.” That’s it. Let’s get you back to class.
I told my principal how it went and that she is allowed to come back when she says what she needs to say. My principal has good relationship with her, so she talked to her. The next day, the student came to my room while I was prepping for my next group.
S: Ms. McCarthy, I don’t like math. I don’t like school. But I want to come back in.
M: Okay. You remember the deal.
S: (deep breath) I’m ready...to be...more...than...poor.
M: You did it. Now we can move forward. I know you said you don’t like math. My mission is to change that!
S: Not gonna happen.
M: (laughing) Challenge accepted. See you after lunch.
Fast forward to the end of the year…This student became my tech assistant. She’s really good at figuring out how things work and even showed me a thing or two (and I’m fairly techie myself!). Eventually, she decided to start working out problems and randomly participating. However, she still has her stinker moments: refusing to work in groups or sing my songs or chant my chants. She still chooses to be disrespectful. And she likes to pretend that she doesn’t care about math and acts like she is not paying attention, but here’s the thing...she is. And she’s smart.
Yesterday, after a pep talk, she decided to compete in the Class Math Bee. I have to admit, I don’t know how I sold her on this, but she competed. This is a picture of her during the competition. In order to stay calm and respectful during the competition, she was working on an Endangered Animals Project on Google Slides, a topic my techie girl is super passionate about. At one point, I kneeled down and whispered, “Hey. Remember that day you told me you were ready to be more than poor?” She nodded. “You’re so talented with computers. Like for real, check out this project! I’m so impressed. People who are good with computers can earn a lot of money, you know?” She smiled.
And to my surprise, she made it to the school finals! Say what? My techie girl who “hates math” outlasted some of the highest performing students in her class. I’m not even making this up. Watch out world - this girl is FULL of SURPRISES!