George Lucas Educational Foundation

5 Epiphanies for Reaching the Unreachable Learner

5 Epiphanies for Reaching the Unreachable Learner

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Overhead view of a student walking down a hallway

I've always been a believer that every child can learn and every child can be engaged. Over my 11 year career, I've met many young learners who have challenged that belief, but this year, my philosophy has been rocked to its core. My administrators had been prepped on this young man, and he made his presence known from the first day of school.

Incredibly defiant, he looked for any and every option to get under my skin and of those around him. I worked quickly to try to develop a positive relationship with him, but giving him chances seemed only to encourage the negative behavior. Within the first week, all of his teachers had so many concerns that we coordinated a parent conference. Unfortunately, as is often the case with this level of defiance, the mother was not at all surprised with his behavior and offered no assistance. She literally threw her hands in the air during the meeting.

Many on my campus have since resolved that this young man is destined for our special programs campus and to simply document everything to get him there. In less than one semester, he's had 14 teachers. As one exceeded his/ her limit, he's moved to the next poor soul as the waiting game continued. But I wasn't OK with adding my name to the list of adults who have failed him, so I've started on a track that's forced me to question absolutely everything I've learned as an educator. Today, he and I have reached a level of mutual respect that I'm not sure he's ever experienced, and it's due in great part to 5 life-changing realizations that I've made along the way.

It's not his fault.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a huge advocate for working to correct the "entitled" generation- kids that have lived their lives behind a force field of deflecting parents. Many of our kids can't take ownership for themselves because others constantly make excuses for them. So, it may sound counter-intuitive to base a philosophy of correcting entitlement by giving them another excuse, but hear me out. Accusing kids of defying what they know to be the right response to a situation implies that they inherently know what that right response is. From my experience, these kids are truly surprised when you call them out for doing something wrong, as if it didn't even register in their head before they did it.

Entitlement comes in many forms. Some may think entitlement comes only with affluence, which it very often does. Kids that get everything they ever want can't fathom the idea of someone getting in their way. However, entitlement does not restrict itself by social class. In this situation, my learner never had the strong parental figure to tell him no. His development has been based on the understanding that he's on his own. His actions have consequences, but it's up to him to prioritize which consequences hurt him the most. Adult disapproval quickly fell to the bottom of that list. 

So, when teachers show frustration in his actions, he walks away completely unscathed. When those frustrations escalate to authorities with much more power, he recognizes the need to change his reactions to avoid police, truancy judges and consequences much higher on his priority list. He's had to learn to survive by himself in a world that so desperately demands an experienced life guide, and if all we do as educators is fall in line at the bottom rung of that ladder, we're doing nothing for him.

I cannot relate to him.

I learned a great deal from that parent conference at the beginning of the year, besides the fact that the mother was not willing or able to support his teachers. I learned that they are homeless and on a good day live in a weekly-rate motel. I learned that he has no resources to assist with his studies at home. I learned that nothing is guaranteed in his life- food, warmth and electricity fall on the same dependence level as buying the new purse or video game for most kids. I learned that, understandably, homework and studying could not possibly compare to his demands when he leaves our campus every day.

I actually learned this lesson before. This learner is not the first homeless or severely low SES student I've had placed under my care. A few years back, the former winner of my "Most Challenging Student" award loved to remind me every day that he and I were in no way alike. And he was right. I grew up in the complete comfort of a middle-class household with the love, admiration and support of two actively involved parents. To even imply that I understood either of these young men's struggles destroyed any potential credibility I may have had through their eyes.

There's a great deal of difference between sympathizing with someone's situation and acting like you understand it. With my current learner, I've worked hard to carefully delineate between the two. For example, during the first few weeks, when other teachers were already coordinating a schedule change, I bought him lunch. I'm sure this goes against some board policy, but I invited him to my room and took his request from his favorite fast food restaurant. We sat quietly that day. He didn't say a word, and neither did I. I didn't suggest that I knew what it was like to be hungry, nor did I make some extravagant scene to show how much he may have needed it. I simply stopped him in the hall when no one was around and suggested it. It was among the first times this year that I saw his wall begin to waver. 

He's not mad at me.

I honestly could not begin to list the multiple, highly disrespectful acts this learner has directed towards me in the few months we've known each other. He's insulted the way I look, the way I dress, and even my family who's pictures are on my desk. He's screamed obscenities, called me names, and constantly walked away as I was trying to talk to him. In my early years, these actions would have absolutely crushed me. I would have either reacted by kicking him out of my class or breaking down in tears. I would have asked myself, "What did I do to deserve this?"

But I know that none of these outbursts are truly directed towards me. I simply represent every adult that has ever failed him in the past. His frustrations are simply a manifestation of everything he cannot control. The hand that he's been so unfairly dealt brings with it a level of stress and frustration that, again, I cannot relate to. The need for confrontation has little to nothing to do with his opinion of me, but instead is a biological necessity to relieve the pressure that's been building within the depths of his soul. As an adult who holds him to a certain level of standards, I place myself directly in the line of fire to this barrage every single day.

So, I've learned to forgive and forget. Depending on the severity of the outburst, whether it's directed towards me or another student, or whether it places anyone's safety in jeopardy, I've responded accordingly with required disciplinary measures. But, when I see him again, I treat him as if the incident didn't happen. I make sure he understands that his past will never define him in my eyes- even the very recent past.

Fair is not always equal.

Rick Wormeli's views definitely apply here. Again, there are certain policies that are non-negotiable when it comes to classroom behavior. You must be on time and you must not involve yourself in any activity that makes another feel unsafe, for example. But for years I established a long list of requirements that I expected every student to uphold. It wasn't uncommon that students would break a few small expectations here or there, but if things became persistent, I'd drop down the hammer. Well, for this learner, I realized quickly that I'd either have to buy a new hammer because of the severe wear and tear it would experience, or I'd have to come up with a new plan.

I knew he was a very unique case. I knew he does not do well with directives. So, I made the decision to develop new expectations specifically for him and to include him in the process. For so many years, he's rebelled from instructions that were imposed on him, but what if he imposed them on himself? I asked him to come see me before school. Actually, I asked him repeatedly as he kept missing our appointments, but he eventually did come. We sat down alone together and began thinking about how I can make my classroom a welcoming environment for him while still ensuring his success. We negotiated back and forth for a while until settling on some basic allowances. For him, here's what we decided:

1. He's allowed to step into the hall without asking if he felt he needed cool down time, as long as he stayed close to my room and it was for no longer than 5 minutes.

2. If there are days when he does not feel comfortable in his 4-table group, he can move to an outside desk and work individually, provided it does not become persistent.

3. With assignments that would typically require time at home, he can complete as much as is necessary to be able to explain to me every important concept that assignment focused on.

4. He is welcome to get up and move about the room as long as I am not directly instructing the class at the time.

5. He must NEVER say or do anything that could be considered disrespectful or threatening to any of his classmates.

We both signed and dated this contract. I made a copy for him to keep in his binder and kept one for myself. For the first few weeks, although I needed to remind him about our agreements a few times, these slowly became the norm. Other students were initially surprised to see him doing these things without me addressing it, but they slowly adjusted as well. Recognizing the need for him to have some autonomy in my classroom expectations did more to develop trust and mutual respect than anything else I've done this year.

Thank him, every day.

This sounds very simple, but it's gone a long way. Again, I've learned to forgive and forget, every day. He's had days where you would never suspect he required any special attention. We've also had days where I felt all of our trust and respect had been shattered and all of this work was for not. But again, it's not his fault, I can't relate to him, he's not mad at me, and fair is not always equal.

So, regardless of the day we've had- regardless of how easily I could dismiss him as someone worthy of my effort to save as so many adults have done in the past- I've thanked him, with a smile. I've told him specifically to have a great day, and that I'd see him tomorrow. In the halls, I keep eye contact on him until he sees me, and I wave with a smile. What used to be a deliberate effort has become commonplace. Whatever bridges he thinks he may have burned are immediately restored, and although he rarely smiles back, he always acknowledges me.

I don't think I'm the only reason he's still on our campus. He has a handful of adults on our staff that are on his side and working to develop their own mutual trust. He's a young man with some incredible resilience to simply make it to school every day. He has every quality we want in our learners- confidence, self-pride and determination. All we need to do is help him recognize the need to reconsider his academic priorities just a bit. His protective wall has saved him from debilitating pain that, again, I can't relate to. But I'd like to think that, for every block that's been added during this school year, two have been taken down.

This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

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Ramy Mahmoud's picture
Ramy Mahmoud
Secondary Science Teacher/ University Lecturer

"Fair is not everyone getting the same thing, but everyone getting what they need."
Love this quote, and I couldn't agree more.

Ramy Mahmoud's picture
Ramy Mahmoud
Secondary Science Teacher/ University Lecturer

Thank you all for the kind words! I'm inspired every day by my fellow educators. I'm honored to hear this may help you all, as well.

Sheryl McBride's picture

Thanks Ramy this is really inspiring. We all have kids like this and often take their rejection of us often as a personal attack and get defensive. Thanks

David Andrews M. Ed., C. P. S. E.'s picture

"The one thing I would offer is not to write off his mom just yet! To me, a parent who showed up to a meeting but has no ideas for teachers is maybe looking for some ideas FROM teachers. I wonder if she is frustrated, overwhelmed, or hopeless. I wonder if she is so busy managing the homelessness that she doesn't have brain space for anything else. In these situations, I wonder how the school can support her, whether it's by helping her learn about parenting strategies, connecting her to counseling or a support group, or just small acts of kindness. Caring for the whole child means caring for the family, too, and in my experience, the student will only make so much progress if his family isn't getting the support they need as well."

Yes. So much yes!

Not much I can add to that - except, maybe, that ... the best way to support children is to also support the parents.

Jacki's picture

This should be required reading for every teacher. Many of us just cannot imagine the home life or background of these students and it is so different from our background. It is hard to pull away and separate ourselves from the anger expressed in front of us.

Ramy Mahmoud's picture
Ramy Mahmoud
Secondary Science Teacher/ University Lecturer

Thank you so much! No teacher can be too empathetic about our kids' unique situations.

Ramy Mahmoud's picture
Ramy Mahmoud
Secondary Science Teacher/ University Lecturer

Thank you for this. You're absolutely right, and since writing this post, the mother and I have become quite close, as well. Great perspective!

MissTeacher Shanks's picture

Thank for your hard, sometimes painful work this kid. I can only imagine how many of the other kids in the class you are silently changing by your ongoing imperfect yet 100% caring example! So thanks for that, too. I have two lovely boys in my own classes; one is Ramy and the other is Mahmoud, so I knew I'd like you! LOL

Lorenza Arengo Yarnes's picture
Lorenza Arengo Yarnes
5th grade teacher from los angeles

In 22years of teaching I had never had a student so defiant and uncaring until this year, and I didn't think I was going to make it. My student was this exact same student. Yet, with the support of friends, family, child therapists, the Internet, and my own reflection I did exactly what you did here. It ended up being his most successful year and I really miss him. I know I helped him find some faith in adults who do care, but he also helped me find the beauty in kids who don't always display that. Thank you for so perfectly and eloquently sharing all that you learned. I know what you have shared will help many teachers and students.

Caron Trout's picture

It wasn't fair of you to write this mum off, you try being homeless and live in a hotel, and don't you think there are a lot of students with mental health concerns. These don't start at their 18th birthday. This student may have ADHD with a some conduct defiant issues. This is healthcare. Also perhaps there are learning differences. Certainly a LOT of stress and depression, anxiety, anger - he's homeless - and probably going through HELL. I am glad you put him in control of the conditions he was going to be in the classroom, he probably has control over nothing else. Please consider he needs a lot more support than he is getting.

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