Five or six of my seventh grade students huddled around me, sweet expressions of sincere concern etched across their faces. “You are definitely not a mean teacher, Ms. C.,” they chorused as we stood together examining the writing that had been scrawled across one of the desktops.
I’ve certainly seen harsher words than “mean teacher” written by middle school students, but still, my feelings were hurt. My initial reaction was to have the office summon the student from the class that he was currently in so that I could interrogate him and make him confess to what he had done. What was he thinking? Did he not realize that I would easily be able to figure out who had written the offensive remark? Seventh graders do not keep secrets. Wasn’t he aware that his peers would immediately tell me? My initial reaction was defensiveness.
Realizing that my first reaction is not always the best one to act on, I stopped myself from responding immediately to my student’s negative behavior. Instead, I casually wiped the desk clean, thanked my fourth period students for their expressions of support, and moved on with my lesson.
I continued to think about what could have caused my student to react so negatively toward me. As I worked to recollect my interactions with him during the previous class period, I remembered him bringing his writing sample to my desk, as all students were instructed to do when they had completed their final draft. The school district that I work for requires middle school students to complete a writing sample of their best work, and they ask that teachers do not provide guidance so that the samples will be authentic assessments of the writing that students are capable of constructing independently.
My student had brought his writing to me and wanted me to read it. I told him that I could not give feedback on it until it was assessed by the district office, but he still insisted that I read it. (It’s important for me to mention that I was simultaneously trying to reply to the email of a concerned parent, answer the questions of a small group of students who had gathered around my desk, and now read the writing sample of the afore mentioned Desktop Graffiti Bandit.) I skimmed his writing sample without giving his writing the consideration that it deserved. I don’t remember the exact comment that I made, but I am certain that it was not thoughtful or substantive enough to merit the time and care that he had put into his writing. I was a mean teacher.
He was clearly proud of what he had written or he would not have placed such importance on me reading it, especially since I wasn’t the one who would be assessing it. It’s true that I couldn’t give him a list of suggestions for how to revise and edit his paper, but what my student wanted from me wasn’t feedback over how to improve his writing. He wanted to know that I appreciated his work, his effort, and his voice. Instead, I was distracted by trivial details that stopped me from being present for my student.
The writing on the desktop was starting to make sense. He was making a blatant statement that went something like: You don’t want to give my writing the consideration it deserves? Then perhaps you will pay attention to the writing on this desk. It was an intentional effort to grab my attention. His negative behavior was most certainly his attempt to communicate a need, a need that I had clearly failed to meet.
He could have internalized his frustration at my insensitivity. This is what the vast majority of students would have done; most would not have acted out in such an overtly defiant way. Of course I do not feel that students should regularly scrawl negative comments across desktops as a way to express their feelings. However, his message was clearly one that I needed to receive and one that I might have failed to realize if it had not been presented to me in such an obvious way.
I mulled the incident over for much of the evening and came to school this morning prepared to handle the situation in a different way than I might have if I had reacted immediately after my discovery of the writing on the desktop. I found my student in the hall before first period and brought him into my classroom for a one-one-one conversation. I apologized for not taking the time to read his writing and give him the response that he deserved the previous day. I told him that I had taken time to read his writing when I could focus on it in a quiet, distraction-free space and that I really appreciated the beautiful imagery and feeling that his words had evoked. His countenance immediately lightened, and the sense of pride in his eyes was unmistakable. I also reassured him that I wasn’t out for vengeance on the Desktop Graffiti Bandit but that I was more concerned about making sure that my students’ needs were being met so they wouldn’t feel inclined to write on my desktops. Then I dropped it.
Third period rolled around, and my student’s disposition had been completely altered. He was more sunny and upbeat than I have seen him in months. He was communicative and eager to assist me in any and every little task that I had on hand.
This incident taught me several important lessons: First, it’s easy to get caught up with rules, procedures, and trivial distractions and lose sight of what really matters—being present and available in the moment for the students who depend on me. Second, the power of apology and attempting to rectify the situation when a student’s feelings have been hurt is huge. Third, there are multiple ways to address a student’s negative behavior, and sometimes kindness, communication, and acknowledgement are more powerful than the administration of justice.