Lessons Learned

I have reached the point in my career where I’ve gained the perspective to look back and discern some of my formative moments as an educator. One thing is certain—some lessons, once learned, cannot be unlearned.

In my second year of teaching high school English, I had three sections of sophomores and two of seniors. The seniors were fine, but the sophomores were hard to handle. As individuals, the sophomores were great young adults. However, as a group, they were proud of the fact that they had shut down their entire middle school—not once, but twice. Interestingly, one section of sophomores was three times more challenging than the other two, all because it included a student named TJ.

TJ was bright, funny, and clever. But he was also unmotivated, obstinate, shortsighted, and disliked authority. Since he was in my class, that meant that he disliked my authority—though it wasn’t personal. In fact, he was always oddly polite. He was great at derailing a class, and given that he was charismatic and a natural leader, he was able to do it at a level I have never seen since. On those rare occasions he was absent, the class was completely different.

For the first two quarters of the school year, TJ and I frequently held conversations in the hallway outside our classroom. These occurred when his behavior became particularly provocative or derailed the class, to the point where it made little difference if the two of us left the room for him to have some individual attention. I often would go into what my seniors called my “preaching and teaching” mode with TJ. I saw such potential in him that I just couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t do what I knew was best for him. And TJ always listened, but never changed.

By winter break I’d had enough. The many days in which I had to spend extra time with TJ were exhausting. After one session, a girl in that class asked me when I was going to give some attention to the “good” kids. It was a fair question.

I came back from break determined to be finished trying to work with TJ. I felt like he simply didn’t care. That nothing I said was getting through, and nothing would ever get through.

During the last five months of school, TJ continued his behavior. I didn’t let it get to me as much, though I continued to take him out of class at times for “preaching.” Such is momentum. But my heart wasn’t in it, and I had learned other ways to compensate for his disruptions.

On the last day of classes, an exam day for freshmen through juniors, TJ’s class was my last exam period. As students filed out and handed me their exams, I noticed that TJ was hanging back, exam in hand.  When the last student passed through the door, TJ walked up to me with one hand holding his exam and his other hand outstretched. 

“What’s up?” I said, taking his exam and looking at his other hand.

“I just want to shake your hand,” TJ said.

“Why?”

“To thank you for not giving up on me,” he said. “I mean, I know what a pain I was, and I really didn’t do anything I should have in your class, but you never gave up. Most of the others did.  So, thank you.”

We shook, and TJ disappeared through the door, which I closed behind him. I turned out the lights and sat at my desk. It was 45 minutes before I was able to get up and make the drive home.

I realized that I was lucky in working with TJ. My heart had failed me, and I had used my head to justify that failure instead of persevering with what was truly a challenge but was my job. And though I’d continued to go through the motions with TJ and it had been enough at the time, it wasn’t really enough. Since then, no matter the challenges with students, I have worked extra hard to make sure that I lead with my heart, and deserve whatever thanks I am given.