You know that kid: The one who walks wearily into the room, throwing himself into a seat and casting his eyes at the clock, the window, and the door. He’s counting the minutes until your class is over. He’s counting on you to just leave him alone.
And when you don’t, he makes you pay for it.
You pay for it in sideways glances, rolling eyes, and snickers. You pay for it in thirty requests to use the bathroom, the drinking fountain, or the pencil sharpener. You pay for it in restless irritation. In resistance. Disrespect.
And it starts to feel personal, this price he makes you pay for trying to teach him. At least it has for me, every time I encounter that kid. And I do, every single time I coach in classrooms or lead writing studio sessions of my own.
Yesterday, I found a picture of that kid, taken during my first year of teaching. And as I looked at it, I couldn’t help but think: If I had a time machine, I’d travel back to my first years in the classroom and give myself a big fat break. That’s what I needed way back then, when I was trying to figure it all out while earning the approval of people who shouldn’t have been my top priority anyway.
“It’s a dance,” I would tell my younger self, if I could. “He’ll teach you the steps, if you just let him lead. Those reigns are too tight, and those rules are all wrong. Breathe. Watch. Listen. Chill.”
Learn from that kid, I would tell myself.
I met that kid again a few times this summer, as I was leading lesson studies for writing teachers inside of classrooms. The first time, he was a she, and the gauntlet was thrown while ten teachers and their administrators were observing and taking notes.
So, I got a do-over, and this time, it felt like a gift.
These days, I don’t take it personally when that kid refuses to bend under the strength of my will.
These days, I don’t even react.
I let that kid get out of her seat. I let her wander the room. I let her look out the window, and when she distracted another student, I pulled her in close with a question she wanted to answer. A question that let her know I saw her and respected her and didn’t quite understand what she needed just yet. It was a question that let her know I wanted to figure that out. That we’d figure it out, together.
I used humor. I admitted defeat. I let her know I was on to her. That I knew she was on to me.
It was a game, of sorts–the way we played at the edges of her defiance. And once she realized that I wouldn’t shame her for going on the offense, everything shifted.
I used to think that allowing that kid to break the rules would inspire others to do the same. I treated distraction as a challenge to my authority. I managed, in order to avoid mutiny.
And I had it all wrong.
When I let that kid do what that kid needed to do, the others watched me for a while, waiting to see how I would react. And when I didn’t? They didn’t either. And that kid found her rhythm. She found her place.
The game became a dance.
I’ve learned that kids become great partners when they know that they matter……not despite it all…..but because of it all.
A few weeks ago, during a lesson study debrief, teachers began reflecting on that kid in our group. He was making me work for every victory, every minute of every day. I’d said as much to him earlier in the session, and he gave me a wry grin before sinking back into his work. I reminded myself that this was work he was typically resistant to doing. It prevented me from completely losing my entire mind.
“Ignoring him works,” a teacher who’d observed the exchange suggested, and I caught myself nodding before stopping abruptly.
Because I wasn’t ignoring that kid. Not really. I was watching him and refusing to react. I was listening to my friend Ellen, who was watching him too. She shared what she was noticing, and it helped me understand him better. I was listening to the teachers in the room who were observing me and him and doing the same. I was practicing empathy as hard I could, and it was changing how I was teaching him.
I think he could sense this. I think it made him proud to be a part of that transaction. I know it inspired him do better work. I know it made his classmates respect him, too.
“I wasn’t ignoring him,” I reflected aloud, still uncertain what was happening or why, but understanding more. “I was learning from him, as imperfect and messy as it was.”
And then I told that teacher that I hoped she would have that kid in her own class this year, and she smiled. She agreed. I know that you’ll change that kid’s life, I told her. More importantly? I know that that kid will change yours.
So, that’s what I told the teachers who watched that kid challenge me for eighteen glorious hours this summer. And I thought that maybe, it was something I should share here, too.
There is no better work than this work that we do, and that kid helps all of us do it better.
It doesn’t matter who is observing you, taking notes, or judging. All that matters is that you and that kid are getting better, together.
I hope that you remember this when you are about to lose your entire mind.
You get to be human, too.
Happy New Year, friends.
Let the games begin, and may you all find great dance partners.