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Earning the trust of a rough and scary high schooler.

Date: September 26th, 2013
By: Polly Bath

I was headed to my third period class when I saw him – a tall, white, 11th grader, with a shaved head and a fully-loaded attitude. He stood across the hall from my classroom door, leaning against the wall as though he owned that stretch of hallway.

I didn’t know this kid personally, but I knew he was notorious for being late to class, and his teachers did nothing about it. With his piercing eyes and a string of tattoos encircling his forearms, I had to remind myself he was just a high school student. I knew it wasn’t that his teachers didn’t care, but that they avoided confronting him. Looking at this bundle of brooding hostility, I could see why.

But when kids get a certain reaction repeatedly, especially one of fear or avoidance, they come to expect it. Sometimes they even use it. And believe me, you don’t even have to say anything – they know how you feel – because adults have been reacting this way to them for a long time. But, as a behavior consultant and a veteran teacher of some very rough kids, this is what I have learned to do: Intercept it! Change their perception! Don’t let them continue to believe that adults can neither handle them nor help them.

So I said, “Hey, you should go into your class before you’re late,” and I turned to enter my own.

And he said, “Why don’t you go into your classroom and teach like you get paid to do!”

Well, of course I had to fight myself to not react. But instead of saying anything, or even giving him a glance, I headed into my classroom. Meanwhile, I created some quick “self talk” to change my own perception. I said something like this: “This child has difficult relationships with adults he sees as authority figures. He pushes limits to see how we’ll respond. And he has successfully sucked many of us into confrontations that don’t go anywhere useful. His life is so difficult he feels he has nothing to lose. He needs my help.” I invented this little scenario from scratch because in reality I knew very little about him, but it short-circuited my urgent desire to lash out and threaten him with consequences. All of which is what he expected. All of which hadn’t brought about a single change in his behavior. I was sure of it.

The next day I saw him in the same spot, with no apparent intention to get to his class on time. He made a tiny bit of eye contact. I went out on the same limb.

“The bell is about to ring,” I said lightly. “You should go into your classroom.”
He gave me the “What’s it to you, lady?” look, but this time he didn’t say anything. Of course he also didn’t move an inch. But I went right into my classroom. To linger would have been to invite a rerun of the day before. I wasn’t looking for reruns. I was looking for a new show.

For weeks, we played out more-or-less the same scenario off and on, until one day he saw me approaching, and slowly dragged his back along the wall, and then, turning on his heel, slipped into his classroom before the late bell. I said nothing. I didn’t even acknowledge him with a glance. No, I was keeping this whole thing very low key. Any praise, or even a whisper of triumph on my part, and we’d have been back to square one.

After that, I saw him in the hall every day around school. I offered him a “Good morning,” a “Hi,” or a “Nice to see you today,” which I always say to all the kids, whether I know them or not. I keep it simple and sincere, and I make sure to avoid being patronizingly cheerful.

I didn’t get a response.

No matter. I kept it up.

Until one day he stopped me with a surprising question.

“Who are you?”

He was right! We didn’t even know each other’s name. Never mind that he was awkward, and even rude. He’d made contact.

“We’ve never actually met, have we? I’m Ms. Bath. I teach across the hall from one of your classes.” I kept my voice soft and kind as we stood there in the sea of fluorescent lights and the funky odors of the high school hall. I felt as if I were coaxing a bull to take a carrot from my hand.

He grunted and walked away.

Weeks later he appeared at my classroom door just after the last bell. He had walked in from his kingdom – the school hallway – into mine, and he said, “Uh, could I talk to you for a second?”

“Sure. I’m done for the day.” I offered him a seat in the Adirondack chair next to my desk. He sat, looking down at the yellowed floor tiles for a long time.

“Someone should really wash these floors,” I said, trying to put him at ease. “The scuff marks are just impossible to keep up with.”

I’ll never forget what he said next.

“I have some big problems in my life and I don’t have anyone to go to.” There was a long silence. I waited quietly. He’d come to say something. He’d say it when he was ready.

“My parents moved away last August,” he said finally. “They figured I was old enough to figure out how to finish high school.”

He told me how he was alone, bouncing from place to place, staying with friends. But his welcome was wearing thin.

I looked at him sitting there. He didn’t look intimidating anymore. He wasn’t scary. He was scared. He looked like a five-year-old lost in the mall, except he was sitting in a big body trying desperately to figure it all out while not exposing his fear and vulnerability.

At that moment, I knew I had made all the right moves. He’d changed his behavior because of my actions, and we’d made human contact. Because of that he could seek assistance. I’m not a licensed counselor but I was able to steer him in a better direction by calling on a colleague who was. This student – Tom – began passing his classes. And arriving on time! He started to see more value in himself and had less conflict with adults.

When children are not available to learn because of life’s circumstances, where do they go? Well, whether they are ready to learn or not, they come to us; they come here, to school, each and every day. We only have control over OUR response, not theirs, but, when we do take control of ourselves, we sometimes elicit powerful results from our students.

And, as for me? I continue to say, “Good morning, I’m glad you’re here.”

Because who knows what response I’ll get next?


Polly Bath’s articles are about real people and real situations. Changes are made sufficient to protect everyone’s privacy. A veteran educator, she is a behavior consultant, trainer, author, and keynote speaker in the United States. Read more information on Polly Bath’s in-school workshops, consultations, summer institutes, and keynotes. And contact us to make arrangements for her to come to your school.