George Lucas Educational Foundation
Administration & Leadership

Not Giving Up On a Student

February 27, 2015

It was late Friday, just before the winter break. Since I was the principal of this school, I was meeting with a parent and her son. I watched the 15-year-old boy smirk when he was asked about why he did not attend school regularly. After the meeting, I talked with his mother privately for a few minutes to find out what was really going on. She shared that she was a single mother trying to raise a family of rebellious boys.

She worked hard to support her family, she explained. I then asked her why she thought her son didn't go to school. She told me that he had to go to school on his own because she was already gone for work. I asked her how the two younger siblings got to school, and she explained that they left early for the bus stop. I then asked, "So why doesn't he go to school, too?" She replied, "He goes back to sleep. He stays up late, and he watches television or plays video games or is on his phone."

"Ma'am, those are easy things to fix," I said. "Get rid of the television, game console, and telephone. When your son shows progress on attending school every day, then you bring them back one by one. Are you willing to do that?" She gave a tentative nod.

"Great. It's not going to be easy, but you have to be firm." I wasn't entirely certain that she was up to the challenge, because it seemed that the boy pretty much did whatever he wanted. She had already gone to court for her son's truancies, and he had yet to do any of the community service the judge had assigned.

Something Has to Change

Now I was facing the boy, trying to find out if he had any desire to change. I noticed right off that when he came back into the room, he immediately started looking at his phone. "How willing are you to make a change and get to school every day on your own?" I probed. He gave the "whatever" shrug. "Are you willing to give up the phone?" Now I got a reaction. "No way. It's my phone!"

I asked him, "Who pays for your phone?" His mom, he replied. "Then it is her phone," I responded. His immediate reaction was to say she gave it to him.

After a few more unsuccessful attempts, the boy still refused to relinquish the phone. I offered up to her that I was uncertain if her son would do anything different at this school than he had demonstrated at his previous school. "Something has to change at home before he will be motivated to change," I suggested. She simply gave a pained nod.

I then turned to the young man and told him that his mother had raised him to exceed and be successful, not fail at school. I noted how hard she worked to provide for him. "If you are going to be successful at this new school, you're going to have to be the one to change. Your mother cannot do it for you." He still didn't seem to get it.

Are You Doing All You Can to Learn?

A couple of weeks later, second period rolled around, and I saw this same boy out in the hall with his technology teacher. He had earbuds in his ears and the teacher was trying to talk to him and getting visibly more upset by the second.

I approached and motioned for the boy to remove his earbuds. He reluctantly complied. Apparently, that is what the conversation was really about. A previous teacher had said that he didn't care if the students had their earbuds on for an assignment as long as they did their work. I asked him if he had been doing his work.

"Wrote my name on the paper, and some other things," he testily replied. The tech teacher said, "You were supposed to be taking notes and writing down definitions. You only have one word on your paper, with no definition." I interceded before things could escalate more, and asked him, "Are you doing all you can to learn?"

The boy did not understand, so I rephrased the question. "Are you doing everything in your power to learn as much as you can?" The boy got what I was saying and looked down as he shook his head negatively. I told him that it was important for him to cooperate with his teacher, and asked him if he could do that. "Yes," he murmured. "Great!" We then fist bumped, and I said," Now show us."

As I continued on my rounds, I mused that there definitely was plenty of hope for that young man. What ways have you found successful to help students overcome negative attitudes about school and learning? Please share in the comments section below.

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  • Professional Learning
  • 9-12 High School

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