Misbehaving Students: There is Always More to the Story

bad behavior story cover image
bad behavior story cover image

My first teaching job was in a title I school in a rural community. Since I was a lateral entry teacher, I was particularly naive about what to expect. I thought all parents raised their children this way and that all kids came to school equipped and ready to learn.  I missed out on a lot of the education classes that would’ve taught me about socio-economic struggles. The whole concept of kids having to shoulder the burden of their parents’ influence honestly never occurred to me–aren’t parents our allies? Don’t they positively influence their children?

Then: I met Malik.

Malik arrived at my school a few weeks after the year began. Malik was especially tall for sixth grade. He walked with a slow cadence, broadcasting he didn’t care by his stride before he ever opened his mouth. But he was so sweet one-on-one. He told me about his dad who yelled and his mom who got high. He told me how hungry he often was after lunch–understandable for a growing teenager who needs more than a school-provided chicken sandwich and applesauce to make it through a long day. As we got to know one another, I expected him to perform in the classroom. After all, we liked each other. So, naturally, I assumed he would want to do well in my class–for me.

I was wrong. Malik continued to put his head down during my 3rd block lessons. He continued to show up empty handed on the day things were due. He continued to walk painfully slow from class to class, no regard for the tardy bell. But what changed was the filter through which I saw these behaviors. I saw his head on the desk as a signal that he needed a snack. The lack of homework was simply what happens when a teenage boy is at home alone, left to choose between an X-box and a textbook. The walking slow? It’s just him dreading another 70 minutes of being told to shape up or get out.

Malik taught me so much that year. He taught me to keep peanut butter crackers in my desk drawer but he also taught me that no one should be held accountable for another’s mistakes. Instead, I held him accountable for what HE was capable of. If his parents couldn’t raise the expectations they had for him, I could. So he got the snack but only if he was working while he ate.

He helped me pilot a program in my school using the Wreck this Journal series. This program allowed students to channel tough feelings and big emotions through creative writing that goes beyond just a pencil and lined paper. This enabled him to deal with home circumstances and to literally get his hands dirty on occasion while also tackling some writing standards. However, he could only use his journal if he was on time and caught up on homework.

Since Malik, there have been many kids who challenge me in various ways. There has been the temptation to take it personally. There have been days when I have left feeling like there is no hope to get them on board. But because of Malik, I now know how important it is to ask questions, to know their story, to respect where they come from. Kids, and people, in general, don’t want to fall short of the expectations set before them. It’s human nature to want to be successful. But the cards we are dealt with often means we are playing a totally different game than our peers: different rules, different definitions of “winning”, different obstacles.

At the end of the day, it is so important to remember that almost every behavior results from a story. Good or bad, parenting and other home influences vastly dictate how students act at school. As Annette Breau says:

Everyone in the classroom has a story that leads to misbehavior or defiance. Nine times out of ten the story behind the misbehavior won’t make you angry. It will break your heart.”

Malik and so many students since had a story that broke my heart but also felt like a call to action to be a different kind of teacher–one who will look beyond the behavior and see the child.

Misbehaving Students: There is Always More to the Story

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I am a Southern gal, mama to two kids (8 years and 6 months) and I have been teaching middle school for over 7 years. I love to go hiking or read a book in my free time. My favorite part of teaching is connecting with kids over things beyond just academics--teenagers are awesome!

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