It is seven weeks into the school year in China and the honeymoon period is most definitely over. So unsurprisingly, last week when I lived with our first-year Fellows and observed their classes in a factory town in China, I’ve been thinking a lot about the “naughty” kids. I am talking about the ones who REALLY misbehave. The ones who beat others, throw desks, cuss out teachers, climb through windows and refuse to do their school work. Also known as my favorites.
But let’s not lie. It’s easy for me to say I love the naughty kids when I don’t have a classroom full of children bullying each other and making me cry. It’s easy for me to tell our first-year Teach For China teachers to spend more time with the fifth-grader who wreaks havoc at their school when I don’t have 60 other students in the classroom to teach. It’s easy for me to tell our teachers to have patience, teach coping skills and to love their children more.
But the reason I say all that isn’t because it’s easy. It’s because I owe it to Shiloh. I was scared of him before we ever met because at 11, he had already served time in juvenile penitentiary for lighting his cousin on fire. His parents were both unemployed and drug addicts. He cussed me out, hit me and most definitely did not do his work.
I tried a bit with Shiloh. I went to his dorm once or twice to tutor him in math. Yet, I stopped going after two weeks. I tried investment strategies. But stopped after he didn’t buy into it after my third try. I tried holding him accountable to the rules, but after a while, all I wanted was to send him to the principal’s office so I could finish teaching just one math lesson that week. I secretly rejoiced when he was suspended for 10 days since it meant 10 days he couldn’t beat up my other students.
One day he stopped coming to school. And I wasn’t too upset. Maybe he transferred. Maybe he moved. Maybe something happened. I never found out and given how overwhelmed I was those first few months, I didn’t even try.
This year, Shiloh will be 19. I still don’t know where he is and what he’s doing. But most likely, he’s not somewhere I’d like him to be. Given his behavior skills, coping mechanisms, low level of literacy and nearly zero family support back then, there’s a good chance he’s in jail or dead.
It was months later before the guilt really hit me. Shiloh didn’t necessarily choose to be the way he was. But I chose to not do what I could to support him.
I don’t believe in guilt. So instead, I changed my attitude. I paid more attention to my students who struggled most with behavior and did everything I could to support them. Along the way, I picked up a couple mindsets I wish I had with Shiloh. These are the non-scientific, most-definitely-not-research-based and potentially pedagogically unsound practices and beliefs for the kids who are most painfully, memorably, badly behaved.
1. They must trust you before they listen to you
2. The naughtier they are, the more love they need. Love breeds trust.
3.WHATEVER YOU DO, DO NOT BREAK YOUR PROMISES.
4. Don’t call them the “bad” kids. Labels and attitudes stick.
5. Contrary to popular belief, being “bad” isn’t actually that much fun. Being successful and praised is far more appealing, even to the most misbehaving student.
6. They’re not being “ringleaders”... they’re exercising leadership. Our job as teachers is to believe in their potential. And harness their power for good... and not evil
7. Whether they know it or not, everyone wants and needs structure.
8. Practice, practice, practice...
9.It gets (much) worse before it gets better.
But oftentimes, it does get better. And when it does and you see a kid whom everyone else has given up on have a “breakthrough”, you’re hooked for life.
And when it doesn’t get better, at least you know you chose to try. Here’s to all the Shiloh’s in our lives.
Photograph by Jessica Shyu
The opinions expressed in Lessons From China are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.