What happens with the difficult students in our classrooms?


Students walking into a school building, Mentoring in the Middle blog
Some years ago, I had a sixth-grader I’m calling "Mikey" in my homeroom who came with a reputation for being quite a liar. He was adorable, with the biggest brown eyes and a smattering of freckles across his cheeks.  I kept a close but friendly eye on him in the beginning, as he presented himself in totally charming ways.  He loved my attention and was filled with engaging stories about his success at taking all kinds of computers apart and putting back together again.  He bragged about his ability to hack into systems but was quick to say he would never do that.  He knew that was wrong.  

I noticed that he didn't have many friends, and when he spoke to kids, their responses were guarded.  I couldn't figure out why.  What about him seemed like a difficult student?  

Then one day, a group of boys approached me about an incident with Mikey in the bathroom.  I was surprised when one said, "Oh, Mrs. Piersol-Miller, you have no idea what he's like.  He's all nice to you but he says and does awful things to kids."
two boys looking at a book together, Mentoring in the Middle blog
That was the moment I started a startling but important journey to get to know Mikey better.  To my face, he continued to be a fun, charming young boy filled with stories.  Behind my back, he swore like a sailor, threatened students, and accused them of instigating events against him.

As we worked together over the course of the year, I started to see a pattern.  He was always busy at work and didn’t need my help, but then he would mysteriously lose his work or not turn it in: “Oh yeah, I left it at home.  I’ll bring it tomorrow.”  “I turned it in, I know I put it in your bin!” 

He was never wrong.  It was only when I would challenge him one-on-one that he would confess to perhaps having stretched the truth.  “I was just having fun; I was joking around.”  When I’d explain that what he’d done or said wasn’t funny, he’d usually agree.  Still, he was quick to say that his peers were the reason for him to get into trouble. 

Like many teachers, I spend a lot of time building a safe, collaborative community in my classroom.  I had to talk to my students multiple times about turning the other cheek or walking away, to continue to make room for him in my class.  There were no other options.  My administrators felt it was better for him to be in school than to be at home. It was hard.  He continued to be mean and demean other kids.  I felt so badly for them, but my hands felt like they were tied.  
three boys working together, Mentoring in the Middle blog
The more I think about Mikey, the more I wonder what will happen to him as he gets older.  Will he be a productive citizen?  Will he be in jail?  Will he work for someone and help their business grow?  Will he own a small business?  Will he talk his way up in some big corporation?  Will he serve on a school board?  Will he hack into someone's network?  Work in local or national government?

We work so hard at loving our students, hoping that we might be the right mix of actions and empathy that they need.  Did I get through to Mikey?  Will he take the fair way I tried with him and use it to do the same in his adult life?  I have no idea.

I’m struck right now, as we grow increasingly worn down by the prospect of a  pandemic that will last longer than we’d thought, as we try to help our kids navigate their way through healthy social-and-emotional changes, that we need, in all facets of our world, people who treat us honestly and without being mean.  People who lead us with a “can-do” spirit into working collaboratively on behalf of and for each other.  People who demonstrate empathy.  People who do for our country what we try to do in our classrooms.

And so, I still wonder.  Where is the place for the Mikeys of this world?


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