“My teacher told me I was smarter than I thought, so I was.”
A few years back I was teaching middle school self-contained. AJ did not have his homework and as usual I was on his case.
“You have the ability. There are constant excuses with you. I don’t understand why you won’t do your work!”
He snapped: “My work? My work, Mr. Mendler? Let me tell you something very clearly. You will never know what it is like to come home from school every day to paid employees. I don’t have a mom or a dad. I live in a group home. You know what that means? The workers there come every day so they can make money and take their own children to Disney World. Not so they can take me. You will never ever know what that is like. So instead of worrying so much about my English homework why don’t you worry about me as a person!”
I froze, feeling the stare of 10 kids while locking eyes with AJ. A line of sweat dripped off his left eyebrow onto his torn green hoodie.
I sat in my comfy leather chair. “You are right. I have no idea what that is like. I am 33 years old and still talk to my parents just about every single day. I cannot imagine never having them in my life. Please tell us.” He went off.
“Why the ‘f’ would you have a baby if you don’t want to take care of it? What did I do wrong? Why doesn’t anyone want to be around me?” He paused. Silence filled my normally bustling room.
“I hate my parents so much Mr. Mendler. I wish so bad they would just visit or call to see how I am doing. But they don’t. Do you think they ever think about me Mr. Mendler? Because when I go to bed at night this is all I think about!” AJ tucked his face into his arms fighting back tears.
Carol went next: “Did you know when I was five years old my mom handcuffed me to a bed and allowed grown men to ‘mess’ with me? She has been in jail for the past 11 years. I live with my grandmother. I’ve never even met my dad.”
Liz told her story next. Russell after her. Then it was Mike’s turn…
My life in the classroom was forever changed. From this moment on I vowed that kids would always come before content.
When they finished I looked at the group. “Ok. I get it. But no more excuses. You might not have parents, you might have crappy home lives, but right now today you have a choice. You give 100% effort at all times and I will guarantee you success. Not only in this class, but in that world. It is time to break the cycle. Each of you has the ability to be better than the people that brought you into this world. Are you going to make the same mistakes as them or will you be better? If you follow me, and believe in me and do what I ask your lives will change.”
From that moment on I had them. Take the time to talk to your kids as people first. Once they believe in you the content will follow. I promise.