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Student Teacher Wins Over Hostile Student (4th Grade)

by :  Concetta DiGena

“You have David Young in your class this year?  Uh!  Good luck with that one.  I am so glad I do not have him anymore.  That child is unbearable!”  These were the very first words, sarcastically made, by my mentor’s colleague concerning one of our students on my first day as a 4th grade student teacher in an Abbott school district in New Jersey.


Soon thereafter, students began to trickle into the classroom, and I could not help but wonder which of the boys was David Young.  It was not until we took attendance did I get to meet him.  David is an African-American boy.  There was a mixture of ethnicities in the classroom, and one might say David stood out somewhat due to his Afro style hair and his abundantly dark complexion.  No student or teacher really resembled him.


I was already tentative about my new career and questioned if I was prepared to cope with “unbearable” David Young.  I am a Caucasian woman from an upper-middle class background, and I could have easily started to conjure worrisome thoughts pertaining to this reportedly troublesome student.  My nature is to be open-minded and open-hearted.  I went with those feelings and opted that very moment to ignore all negative dialogue and adopted the notion of tabula rasa with regard to Mr. Young.


David was greeted with the same warmth I welcomed others.  I offered a “Good Morning” and a heartfelt smile.  As the days passed, I became acquainted with the children and noticed that David was a good writer.  I immediately complimented him on his writing skill and remember seeing his eyes light up as I praised him.  In fact, his reaction left me wondering if this was the first compliment he ever received from a teacher or any other adult in a mentor capacity.  It also became quite apparent David was not up to par academically with the other students.  I offered to help him, just as I did with others, in the mornings before class and was pleased he took me up on this offer.


Even after months of working with David, I never knew what he was thinking.  While other students became less cautious and responded to my candor and honest enthusiasm, David remained remote and unreadable.  He often sat at his desk with a dumbfounded look, never giving even a slight inclination of his thoughts or feelings.  I wondered if he enjoyed the 4th grade and if I was an effective teacher.  I wondered if he appreciated the extra help I gave to him in the mornings because some mornings he failed to show.


David had difficulty staying seated, and it was challenging to get him to begin a task.  In addition, he had a tendency to disrupt the classroom by saying unkind things to other students.  He also seemed to be very defensive.  For instance, if another student even looked at him in a way he did not like, he immediately became confrontational and angrily remarked, “What are you looking at?”  I refused to tolerate negative remarks in the classroom and adopted a zero tolerance policy.  When warranted, David’s supportive mother was contacted regarding his misbehavior.  Some weeks were so challenging that I could not wait for Friday’s arrival just so I could regroup from all the energy and patience depleted from me. 


In the last week of my student teaching, my inquiries got resolved.  As I read one of David’s journal entries, my heart instantaneously sank.


He wrote to me:

I am really sorry that you have to leave.  I know you are going to miss Mrs. Ricc and us and so are we going to miss you.  There is something how you teach but I just can’t explain myself and the way you talk when you read something.  I am actually going to cry right now because you have to leave.  I have had the most 4 months of fun with you.  I just don’t know how to repay you.  You have done for me and I really want to do something for you.  I am going to give you something a stuffed dog I have had it for a long time and it is going to be a prize to you.


Needless to say, I was very touched that I reached David, but the larger victory was that he finally shared his feelings with me.  My self-doubt evaporated:  I was an inexperienced teacher who positively affected a challenged student.  David validated me as a teacher and I validated him as a human being.  We served as each other’s catalyst.


What did I do?  I treated him with respect.  I showed him warmth and kindness while still maintaining a supervisory role.  I did not build my expectations according to others’ opinions, nor upon his physical appearance.  I refrained from labeling, discovered his positive abilities, and also capitalized on opportunities to encourage and heighten his sense of achievement. 


Focusing my energy on David’s positive attributes helped him feel validated and worthy.  I believe we can find something good to say about every student, omitting comments on their physical appearance.  That is, students should not be made to feel worthy or unworthy because of how they look.


In David’s case, I complimented him on his writing.  Other students were praised, among other things, on their helpfulness and thoughtfulness.  I complimented them at every opportunity such as when they walked quietly through the halls, held a door for a fellow student or had good penmanship.  Praises can be humble rather than grandiose.


On my last day of student teaching, David came in not only with the stuffed animal he mentioned in his journal, but also with his father.  He brought his father along because he wanted his dad to take a photograph of the two of us.  I felt honored by this and amazed at how my initial compliment on his writing skill and my consistent treatment of respect touched this boy.


It was abundantly clear to me that David did not have much monetarily but was willing to share this “prize” with a student teacher he knew for only approximately four months.  This is a child who came to school with cockroaches creeping out of his book bag.  He often wore the same clothing on consecutive days.  He did not grow up with material advantage, but David had a wealth of understanding of the human heart.  In our final moments together, he showed great appreciation for a teacher who was only doing her job.   I was fortunate he shared his feelings with me.


I found myself being challenged and decided to put myself in my student’s shoes.  As a very young girl, my mother cultivated in me the lesson of treating others the way I wanted to be treated.  I would not want a teacher to give up on me.  As a result, I did not give up on David or any other student.  Simply put -- giving up is not an option. 


I wanted David to believe in himself; therefore, I initiated the process by believing in him.  David needed that one positive school experience, that one good year, that one energized semester that would give him the impetus to build a successful academic future.  I was bound and determined to be that singular teacher who might very well change his life.


David is a student I will never forget, and I can say with confidence I am a teacher he will always remember.  Teachers are afforded the opportunity of touching many young lives in a positive or negative way.  It is my philosophy that the art of teaching has two founding principles:  to feed the mind and reach the soul.  Teaching must come not only from the mind but also from the heart.  The two must work hand-in-hand in this profession.  At times, it is our hearts that will help guide our way.

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