A few years back, when I was teaching in a self-contained high school class in Rochester, N.Y., I had a student named AJ that would not attempt any assignment I gave him. It was frustrating.
“You have the ability to do this work,” I said to him in front of the class. “There are constant excuses with you. I’m tired of saying the same thing…!”
“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 to paid employees. I don’t have a mom or a dad. I live in a group home. The workers are cool, but they come to make money and take their own kids to Disney World. Not so they can take me. You will never ever know what that is like. Instead of worrying so much about my work why don’t you worry about me? Why don’t you care about my life?”
I froze, feeling the gaze of 10 kids while locking eyes with AJ. A line of sweat dripped off his left eyebrow onto his torn green hoodie.
I plunged into my cushy leather chair and rolled to the front of our room. “You are right. You are so right. I have no idea what that is like. I am a grown man and still talk to my parents almost every day. I cannot imagine never having them in my life. Please tell us.”
He went off.
“Why 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 classroom.
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“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? Because when I go to bed at night this is all I think about!” AJ tucked his face into his arms fighting back tears.
Then Carol joined the conversation: “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…
That was it. My life in the classroom was forever changed. From that moment I vowed that kids would always come before content.
When my students finished sharing their heartbreaking experiences I looked at the group and told my story:
“I struggled in school. I was tested and ‘labeled’ just like some of you. I have severe ADHD and take medication for it. I am currently in addiction recovery, and have been for years. I grew up in the shadow of a brilliant older sibling and continue to have a deep feeling of insecurity. My dad travelled a lot and when I was a kid there was no Facetime or Skype. I remember many nights sitting by the phone hoping he would call before bed from a pay phone as he ran to a flight. My point is we all struggle. Some worse than others, but struggles ruin people or make them stronger. Today, right now, each of you in this room has a choice. You give 100% effort at all times and I guarantee success. Not only in this class, but in that world out there. 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 listen to me, and believe in what I ask, your lives will change. Focus on attitude and effort. All of you control the attitude you take and the effort you put in.”
Focus on attitude and effort with your toughest kids. We can’t always control outcomes, but we always control the attitude we take to each situation and the effort we give. Share your story. Show them success is possible no matter how far behind they are. Remember, it is easy to be there in life for people when things are good. Be there for kids when things are bad and we change lives.
Brian D. Mendler
Brian is a certified K–12 and special education teacher with extensive experience working with challenging students in general ed, self-contained, and inclusion settings. As an adjunct professor at St. John Fisher College in New York, he teaches Behavior Management and Introduction to Special Education.
Brian is the co-author of the recently released book, Discipline with Dignity, 4th Edition: How to Build Responsibility, Relationships, and Respect in Your Classroom, which was written with Richard L. Curwin and Allen N. Mendler.