Loving the Unloveable Student

I recall clearly an experience I had early in my career that changed my perspective on teaching forever and made me an immeasurably better teacher. On the day before school started we received our class rosters in our mailboxes. I was teaching three hours of ninth grade Physical Science and three hours of Pre-Algebra. As I looked over the roster I quickly noticed that every student in my Physical Science classes were tenth graders or above. That meant one thing: they had all failed the class before. Oh no, all these kids were failures! The last thing they wanted was to be in my class and the last thing I wanted was to have them there. I wanted the good kids, not these rejects.

I ran to an assistant principal, who had nothing to do with the schedule, and moaned my woes to him. He looked me in the eye and said, “Mike, what are you going to do about it? Are you going to complain all year about what somebody has done to you or are you going to set the tone in your classroom tomorrow that will give those kids a chance?”

It was the best thing anyone could say to me. I went home and reflected. I chose to not complain about how these kids could never learn. I chose instead to stand at the door every hour and look every student in the eye and welcome them to my class. Many of them didn’t look back at me. Most didn’t appear to be very lovable. Remember you don’t have to like every student… just act like you do! But something happened. In just a few days they began to respond to me. And I responded to them. I actually began to like them. Well, most of them, anyway.

The first thing I said to each class was, “Look around you, go ahead, look around. You will notice that every one of you are in the tenth grade or above. That tells me one thing: all of you have failed this class before. But one nice thing about school is that you can start all over each August. The slate is wiped clean. This is a new year, with a new teacher. I don’t care what you did last year, and neither should you. I’m going to give you a chance to succeed that you never had before and I expect every one of you to do just that.”

Oh, those classes were hard work. There were few discipline problems, but it was hard work to prepare lessons that were relevant to them without losing the rigor of the course. It was hard to establish relationships with them. I found it difficult to involve parents until I began making personal phone calls. I searched for reasons to call home. When a student made his first C on a test, I called home. You can imagine the conversation.

“Hello, Mrs. Smith? This is Mr. Prater, Johnny’s science teacher.”

Long pause. “What’s he done now?”

“Nothing bad, I just wanted to let you know that he is working hard for me in science and he just made a C on a really difficult test. I’m proud of him, and you should be, too.”

One young man came in the next day after a phone call and he actually had tears in his eyes. “Mr. Prater, my dad took me out for pizza last night after you called. He’s never done anything like that for me.” You know, I never had to cajole him again that year to turn in his work or study for a test.

I’ve had National Merit Scholars who attended West Point or Harvard. I can count as my former students judges, doctors, research scientists, and military generals. But by far my most rewarding teaching experience was that group of kids and others like them. I really had little impact on the judges, doctors, and all the rest. They would have made it without me. Maybe they made it in spite of me.

 Did I reach every child? No. Some are in the prison system today, some are hooked on all sorts of things, and some are no longer with us. But I know that I made a difference in lives. The phrase “make a difference” is practically a cliche now, but nevertheless it is still true. YOU teachers touch lives every day. Never lose the passion for loving children.

About mprater

I'm a recently retired school teacher/administrator continuing to help people grow through personal learning. When not blogging, I do consulting work for schools and organizations, make presentations at conferences, and research for publication. At the same time, I have to set aside enough time to enjoy the "good life" of retirement!
This entry was posted in Student Motivation, Teacher Motivation, Teaching Tips, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Loving the Unloveable Student

  1. Brandon Pafk says:

    Great article! I am now brainstorming creative ways to share this with my staff. Thanks!

  2. mprater says:

    Thanks for your kind comment, Brandon. My best wishes to you and your staff as all of you reach out to establish meaningful relationships with kids.

  3. Constance Dixon says:

    I loved reading this article. I am going in to secondary special education and the question I get asked most often is, “why?”. I always give the same reply, “why not?”. The students that you talked about in your article are the students that I will be teaching daily. I feel as if these students need a passionate and dedicated teacher just as much as any other student; if not more. These students will most likely not have much support at home and if they do then they can always use more. Teaching is a challenge no matter what subject or who your students are. Your assistant principal gave you the advice you needed most and now you are sharing it with many others.

    • mprater says:

      Constance, you sound like just the passionate and dedicated teacher that your students need to validate them, motivate them, love them, and in the process lead them into learning. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Haleigh Respess says:

    I found this blog post to be an inspiration. Rather than giving up on your not so lovable class, you embraced them with open arms. I feel that because of you, many of them felt that they had a second chance, and that really motivated and pushed them to succeed.

    • mprater says:

      Thanks for your response, Haleigh. YOU sound like you are going to be one of those teachers who will embrace all students and truly impact their lives in a positive way. My best wishes are with you.

  5. Jordan Patterson says:

    I am Jordan Patterson and I attend the University of South Alabama and I am currently in the class EDM310. I really enjoyed reading your post. It was very informative and taught me some very valuable lessons. I tend to ask the same question, such as Why Me? At first, you obviously didnt want deal with any of the students but it seemed like you got a wake up call and figured why not. I like the way you handled these kids and really gave them a second chance. Even though these kids have previously failed the class, you gave them a reason to try to learn. The way you connected with that kid and his parents was awesome. I really enjoyed reading your post and look forward to reading your future blog posts.
    Thanks Jordan

  6. mprater says:

    You’re right, Jordan. We all need a “kick in the butt” sometimes. I got one, and it changed my career and my effectiveness as a teacher. Connection with students is key. I know you will make that connection a critical component of your teaching strategy.

  7. Kayla Parazine says:

    Mr. Prater, I am a student at the University of South Alabama in EDM 310. Your post was so inspiring to me, as well as many others from the comments I see! You have definitely put into perspective for me on how important it is to love on our students not matter what. We never know what they can accomplish if we show them love and respect. I love the story about the young man who was so excited because his father took him out for pizza because he did well on an assignment. That shows me the importance of staying in contact with the parents about the students’ progress. This was so inspiring, and I will definitely apply this love concept into my classroom! Thank you

    • mprater says:

      Thanks for your comments, Kayla. It sounds like you are well on your way to becoming a master teacher because of your heart for kids. I’m glad my posts encouraged you. My best wishes to you!

  8. By the end of this blog I had chills. I think it is incredible that you took on the challenge, and changed student’s lives. I know from experience what it is like to have a teacher that treats students different just because they failed. I hope that teachers around the world read this blog and see that if you love your students who seem to be at their worst, it will make an impact on them.

    • mprater says:

      Thanks for the comment, Haley. Most of us have had those bad experiences with teachers ourselves, and it motivates us to be different, to be the kind of teacher kids remember for the good reasons: we cared, we treated them with respect, and we challenged them to do something they didn’t think they could do.

  9. Alex says:

    Hey Mr. Prater my name is Alex, I am a student at the University of South Alabama. I really enjoyed reading all your blog post. I am a future teacher and you have had some great experience in the teaching field. I admire the way you handle certain situations. I felt that this post is helpful and a reminder to future teachers because, not all students are going to be easy to work with. You mentioned that teachers should never loose passion for their job you are so correct.

  10. mprater says:

    Thanks for your kind comments, Alex. I’m glad you are being reflective on your journey to becoming a teacher. My best wishes are with you.

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