Published Online: June 11, 2013

My Breakthrough Moment as a Teacher

Elementary students love hugs: giving them, asking for them, and surprising teachers with them at the most awkward moments. Most of my 6th grade students are too cool, though, and only a few of them like to surprise me with hugs. Thank goodness.

Hugs can be awkward for me. I didn't come from a home where they were the norm.

However, I will remember one hug for many years.

Jack: Uncensored

"Jack" hated authority. He wouldn't do his work. He swore in class. He was one of the most difficult students to work with, and teachers couldn't get rid of him fast enough. Jack was known throughout the school and had a rap sheet longer than the length of our gym. As a third-year teacher, I took a deep breath when I saw he was in my class.

When first dealing with Jack’s behavior, I took careful steps. I warned him, tried positive reinforcements, and talked with my principal. Several times. After a few weeks of constant shenanigans, I’d finally had enough. It was time for a discussion with Jack, but a friendlier one instead of my usual structured approach.

We talked for about 30 minutes. He told me that he wasn't a fan of school, but for once, he was a fan of his teacher. Maybe I still had a chance to salvage this young man's school year, I thought.

Then reality struck. The following day, Jack earned a two-day suspension for using his "favorite sign language" towards a substitute. I was crushed. This was the second suspension he had earned.

Then and later in the year, Jack mentioned that his mom wouldn't get him up for school. She wouldn't sign permission slips for fun activities. Jack was living with six other people. He needed to be in school.

‘Why Do You Keep Trying to Help Me?'

In February, we watched the film "Percy Jackson" for our unit on ancient Greece. Permission slips were required. Of course, Jack didn't have his. While I passed out alternative assignments, I heard him say, "I would be watching it if my drunk mother would sign my damn permission slip!"

I thought I was going to have to do instant damage control, but by now the kids ignored his behavior. We talked in the hallway, this time for a 45-minute conversation.

"Why do you keep trying to help me? Can’t you see that I don’t have anything going for me?" he asked.

"Explain that." I said. "Tell me why you don’t have anything going for you."

"Well, I can’t read and I can’t do math. No one wants to work with me in groups because I’m dumb. All you should be doing is teaching me how to read better and do multiplication. That’s your job."

"It’s so much more than that, Jack! My main priority is to develop relationships with you guys and work with you to create trust so that you feel comfortable to make mistakes and try again. I care about you guys and talk about you all the time."

His next question shocked me. "All of my other teachers have always given up by now. Why haven’t you?"

I responded with a newfound compassion for the boy who felt like his only ally was his inappropriate sense of humor. "Because, Jack, I care about how you feel when you’re here. I care if you’re having a good day and want to know how I can help you when you’re having a bad one. School is a place where you should be able to talk to someone. That someone you can count on is me."

We took a little more time, and I told him about my past, including a time in my young adulthood when no one believed in me. We just sat on the floor and talked. It is something I will look back on and appreciate—much more so than the memory of a stack of tests with smiley face stickers plastered to the front.

As the bell rang and students flooded out, eager to start their spring break and forget about ancient Greece and ecology, Jack turned back. He walked over to me, told me to have a great break, that he was going to miss me, and … gave me a huge hug.

A hug!

A display of positive, warm affection from the very student that every other teacher had warned me about. I had been working tirelessly with Jack all year. Those minutes we’d spent in the hallway, when I reinforced my belief in him, finally made a breakthrough.

The End of Our Year Together

Without a doubt, Jack's educational and social gains will be on the highlight reel for this year. Before I met Jack, he was learning with 2nd and 3rd graders in a self-contained special education setting and reading at a 1st grade level. By March, his reading had advance by almost two grade levels, and he was working independently in math at a 6th grade level.

After our breakthrough moment, he worked hard with me day in and out. Jack never changed who he was, but he finally realized, with my help and encouragement, that he could put aside some detrimental triggers in his environment and thrive.

Unfortunately, Jack's parents uprooted him suddenly in late April. We didn't get to say goodbye. As upset as I was, I knew that I had done everything I could to make Jack feel successful and proud to be a student in our classroom.

My Own Breakthrough Moment

I always thought that my teaching goals and accomplishments would be measured by my students’ instructional gains. But what Jack helped me realize is that students’ personal gains are just as important.

Next year, I’m going to get to know my students on a more personal level and encourage more casual conversation than I have in my first few years of teaching. I am working on finding ways to celebrate the uniqueness of each student within our home away from home—and tap into that uniqueness to motivate their learning.

The experience I've gained in teaching Jack has given me the confidence and inspiration that I need in order to keep growing as a teacher. I hope other teachers struggling with confidence or overwhelming expectations find inspiration in their own breakthrough moments with students.

Who knew a hug from a student could mean so much?

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