I have a student, Derrick*, in my class who is never without his “Grumpy” (the dwarf) sweatshirt. This sweatshirt is often a quite literal reflection of his mood. I know that school is not an easy place for Derrick. Derrick struggles. He is several grade levels behind in reading. I have seen him work diligently on a project for 45 minutes, make a small mistake, and then just throw the whole thing away. Derrick has a good relationship with my cooperating teacher (he was in his class last year too). I know that he enjoys his time in the Learning Center as well. Derrick loves to stay in during recess, and will talk your ear off about his hobbies and interests. But, here is my struggle: every time I try to check in with him during work time he just shuts down. He often works himself up to the point where he is breaking his mechanical pencils into pieces or scratching holes into his paper.
I’ve been having a mental wrestling match with myself. I want Derrick to know that I care about him and as his teacher, I can’t let him sit idly by. I know that relationships and trust are built over time, but on the other hand I don’t want him to think that it is okay to sit and break pencils if I ask him how he is doing. On Tuesday, we had an incident where this happened and I could tell that Derrick was having a hard time for most of the day after that. I tried to be understanding, to let him know that I understood that he was frustrated. My CT thinks that he probably doesn’t want me to see how much he is really struggling, that its hard for him to admit it.
I decided to just try to connect with Derrick at times when I could see that he wasn’t frustrated. He stayed in during recess on Thursday and it was just the two of us. We had the chance to talk about why he likes the Learning Center, more about his hobbies (seriously hard to get a word in, once he gets going!) and about some of the writing we have been working on. The next day he asked me for help in math. I’m not saying that Derrick and I are great terms yet, or that we can put the broken pencil days behind us, but it felt like a small step in the right direction.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Derrick this week, wondering what I should do. I’ve leaned heavily on Faber and Mazlich’s ideas in How To Talk So Kids Can Learn, and some of the principles of Positive Discipline that I used in my preschool class. Honestly, I’ve been frustrated, but I’ve also tried to look at things from Derrick’s perspective and practice empathy.
I’m happy to say that Derrick and I are on really good terms now. I think what really helped our relationship is my learning how to anticipate his reaction to things better. When I got to know him better, I knew what his triggers were. This allowed me to talk with him before an assignment or unit to come up with a plan together. For example, when I was planning to teach probability in math I knew he would become frustrated right from the start because it involves so much reading. We were able to talk about it and I let him know that I would be there to support him and he could choose to work with a partner as well. The following weeks went really well for him and he was happy to help motivate his partner to get work done too. When I look back on our relationship, I feel really good about how far we’ve come. It feels good to be a trusted adult in this student’s life. I hope that through our experience, we will feel at least a little more trusting of teachers as he moves onto to Junior High next year.