I stood there motionless, my face beet red with embarrassment. Was this really happening to me? If he hits you, do not hit him back was the only thing my professional mind could think about as I stood there paralyzed. “You are the adult,” I reminded myself as the adolescent marched down the hallway towards me yelling, “shut the f*** up!” His anger confused me as I stood there trapped never having experienced this before. As a teacher, you hear the horror stories of students cussing you out, and I always assumed it was the teachers who didn’t care. The ones who had not taken the time to build relationships with students. That was until this moment, when it happened to me. And it took every ounce in my body not to drop him on his ass just as the hood had taught me to do when I was disrespected.
Let me rewind about twenty minutes. The 8th grade team decided they wanted to have a parent conference with a struggling student. He has been acting out in class, refusing to take his coursework seriously, and was failing everything. I decided to join the meeting as the Dean of Students and felt it would be another chance to advocate for my teachers but also support the family and help them find solutions for their student. The meeting was lead by his math and history teacher, who explained the student’s bad habits to mom. They reminded her that it was not how he had started the year and asked if there might be something going on that led to this change. His mother was working alongside the teachers to help find solutions to the problem, but the student, feeling attacked, was not on the same page.
Sensing his agitation and discomfort I asked the student what he was thinking. He shrugged and made it clear that he no longer wanted to be in that space. His mother infuriated with his apathy began sharing her frustration and raising her voice. Growing up in a Latino community and seeing my mother do this to me and my siblings, it almost felt like a sense of comfort that she was showing passion towards her son’s well being. He grew more agitated, feeling more alone, and feeling more criticized by the adults sitting at the table who continued to claim they cared about him and his future.
But what did any of us really know about him and what he wanted? I knew nothing about what this student wanted for his life. And quite frankly I don’t think anyone in that space knew what he wanted or even bothered to ask. However, in that moment I had neglected to make those connections. Instead I looked over at this hard working women he called mom and watched her helplessly try to motivate her son. Reminding me of my parents and the sacrifices that they had endured for me and my siblings, I grew more frustrated with his indifference.
I began to point out his mother’s tears and began interrogating him about how that made him feel. “How do you feel seeing your mother get emotional over this conference?” He glared at me and responded, “Bad” with anger in his eyes. I continued to push the issue and ask him what he was going to do to fix the situation. Feeling like I was making gains while running out of time because the school day was going to start we concluded the meeting with next steps, and we agreed what he was going to commit to and reached an oral agreement that he would not act out in class again. I stood up confidently and shook his hand feeling like we had made progress. I was wrong. Very, very, wrong and that was clear when he stormed out ignoring what his mother was saying to him and slammed the door behind him.
Upset that he continued to disrespect his mother during his exit and seeing the dent in my office wall, I called for him back. He kept walking away from us so I followed him down the hall and called his name a second time. That’s when he turned around, began shouting profanities, and charged towards me. I could hear the words he was shouting but more powerful was the rage I could see in his face. His anger screamed at me that he did not enjoy the conference, and he was walking towards me as if he was going to let me know just how he felt with his hands. Two students immediately pulled him away from me as I stood there immobile. When I realized there was nothing else for me to do in that moment I gathered my belongings hoping to find my self respect and dignity hidden behind my laptop and planner. I felt a plethora of emotions. I was angry, embarrassed, ashamed, uncomfortable, and disappointed. I was not raised to let myself be disrespected, and this was the most disrespected I had felt in a long time. All I could think of was, “What is wrong with him?”
After having a pity party for myself, I immediately began thinking about how I was going to help this young man. My question shifted from “What is wrong with him?” to “What happened to him?” Why was he so angry? Why didn’t he see the value in school? Who hurt him? He was clearly angry about life and felt defeated and went to a place where he was defending himself. The first thing I thought was that I needed to get to know him better. I wanted to know what his goals were, what he wanted out of life and how I could support him achieve his goals. I was no longer going to assume his goals but instead hold him to high expectations while supporting him with his own dreams. I asked our principal to move him into my advisory, a class every teacher at my school instructs that focuses on making sure students have a support system at school. My advisory is a tight knit group, and I was going to welcome him into the space to show him that although he had disrespected me, more so than anyone else had, I was going to forgive him and give him a second chance.
I was going to be vulnerable, put my pride aside and be the bigger person so that one day he could return the favor. As educators, we often become really defensive and prideful about student behavior towards us. And although it’s not justified because we should not be treated poorly, we need to also remember that every student has a story — a story that we know nothing about. We need to give students that space and help them navigate through their feelings. The student reminded me to take a step back when approaching student behavior and ask not “What is wrong with them?” but instead “What happened to them?”
I had gotten to know this student better and came to understand that the conference had triggered all the negative things he had experienced from teachers his entire life. He didn’t try in school because he lacked confidence and genuinely believed that he was not capable. He lacked confidence because teachers have always said negative things about his work ethic in school, and he had internalized that he wasn’t “good” at school. As an English language learner, he struggled when he first started his educational career, and the negative feedback only perpetuated a cycle and hatred for his education. So, when I reflected and asked myself to think about what had happened to him I concluded, we happened. We, educators of his past, happened. The education system had failed this young man and had made him hate school because he had not been inspired to learn or to want more for his future. He did not believe in himself. He had become trapped in the cycle of oppression that many low-income students fall into, and I was determined to help him break out and move ahead.
As time passed, I wasn’t really sure that we were making any progress. He said “good morning” everyday and gave me a fist pump as every other of my advisees does, but I was not sure if we were really moving forward until his PE teacher reached out to me. At the end of her exam, she asked the students to share their favorite athlete and if they did not have one, their favorite teacher. She showed me his exam, smiling, and there read “Mr. Gonzalez.” He had declared me his favorite teacher, and I was moved and felt a plethora of emotions. This time I was pleased, proud, relieved, and happy.
This experience was humble pie for me. Just because I was the Dean of Students, had a positive relationship with students, staff, and families, I was not exempt from the real issues students are facing. I couldn’t march into a meeting and make a student feel bad for the behavior that he was projecting and not expect a consequence. I also reminded myself quickly not to take this incident personally and that there is nothing wrong with our students. As educators, it is our duty to understand what is happening in our students lives, so we can be prepared to meet them where they are mentally and scholastically so that they can successfully move ahead.
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