I have a student I struggle with. I struggled with him when he was in my ninth grade class, and I dreaded having him in my class again as a junior. When Pedro walked into my room at the beginning of the semester, I took a deep breath and resolved to make a fresh start with him.
My goal was to find some way to connect with him-to find something that we had in common, something that we could begin to build a relationship on. And I did: gum. Pedro and I both love gum. It seems like a silly basis for a relationship, but it was all I had. We talked about favorite flavors, favorite brands, how many pieces we chewed in a day. I shared how I can’t chew gum at school because I’m a bubble blower and it’s not cool for teachers to blow bubbles. He shared how he used to get in a lot of trouble for chewing gum at school. They weren’t deep conversations, but a bit of a relationship began to form.
Each day, I resolved to greet him and find at least one positive thing to say to him before I reminded him to arrive on time, pull up his pants, get started on his warm-up, turn in his homework, and stop distracting his classmates.
As the semester progressed, Pedro and I had many ups and downs. Some days he was so disengaged from classwork and distracting to other students that he needed to leave the room. He could be rude and defiant and push me beyond the limits of my patience, but gradually I began to notice little changes in him. He started arriving on time some days. He started bringing his notebook and a pencil some days, and some days he even pulled his pants up before I reminded him. He started to show some respect to me and to his peers.
Pedro struggles academically, and being the kid who chomps his gum and doesn’t care might seem easier than being the kid who tries and fails. But he started to make an effort in his schoolwork. He came to see me during his lunch hour for extra help. Twice he came in after school to make up tests, and he started paying attention more in class and even asking and responding to questions. A colleague told me he made a connection between the moles we were studying in chemistry and the moles they were talking about in health. He worked his way through an entire quiz and got a B! I had never seen him focus long enough to succeed at something, and he was proud of his work and his effort.
I would like to think Pedro’s successes are all because of the gum connection, but I think what really made a difference is that we found a place to begin a relationship. Many days, I still take a lot of deep breaths and remind myself of my goal to connect with him. Our relationship is far from perfect, but we’re making progress.
Ever had a kid like Pedro who pushed your buttons? What creative connection did you make?
Ann Larson Ericson has been using the Developmental Designs approach in her classroom for more than eight years. She teaches high school chemistry and physical science at Community of Peace Academy, a public charter school on the east side of St. Paul, Minnesota.
Posted August 2013