Teacher hates a student, but sticking it out could be life-changing for both

Q: I really can’t stand a specific student. I just found out he will be in my class again this year. Teaching him once was more than enough! I know it’s not politically correct to hate a student, but this kid is the worst. I’ve tried every classroom management strategy, but he just pushes all my buttons. He mocks the way I walk and talk, makes fun of kids who screw up answers, draws pictures of genitals all over the desk, walls and floor, gets aggressive very quickly, steals anything not nailed down—whether it’s Doritos or tape—and has the worst hygiene. He downright stinks. He puts in no effort when he’s in class either, which isn’t that often in the first place. I’ve called home, but his mom says he’s my problem, and she can’t control him either. She seems like she doesn’t care or has given up. Maybe this is more of a confession than anything else, but what can I do here? Given how I feel, should I try to get him out of my class? I don’t want to spend another semester constantly sending him down to the main office.

A: I suspect that any school counselors reading your question are wondering what I’m wondering. What’s going on in that child’s house? Why does he steal compulsively? Is he hungry? Why is he so angry and mean? Why does he push everyone away, from kids to authority figures? What’s with the unusually poor hygiene? Does he have access to a shower and clean clothes? Why is his mother so overwhelmed and disengaged she can’t even problem-solve with you? Is she a single parent? Working multiple jobs? These are just the initial questions that ran through my mind. I have so many others. Does he have an undiagnosed learning or emotional disability? The inappropriate pictures are a red flag. Is it possible he’s been sexually abused? What’s he doing when he’s skipping school? Your question rings every alarm bell and reads like a counseling case study. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this is a family in crisis. 

I’d meet with his school counselor as soon as possible. He or she may be able to shed some light on the situation. There may be a backstory that will build your empathy, understanding and patience. If your concern is news to the counselor, he or she should find out what’s going on. The counselor may need to conduct a home visit, especially considering that attendance is an ongoing issue. This kid needs all hands on deck to rule out serious problems and put any needed supports in place. 

I also would talk to administration. It sounds like they’ve spent significant time with him related to his offenses. Has any administrator gotten to know him personally? Have all interventions been punitive, or has anyone tried using restorative justice practices? I assume administrators have called home multiple times, so they may have useful information about the parenting situation. If he hasn’t already, the boy needs to make a meaningful connection with someone in your building. It would be such a great rewrite to your story if that person ends up being you. 

I haven’t forgotten your original question. I understand why you dislike this child. He’s not easy, but you’re a professional. You don’t get to handpick your students, much as he doesn’t get to handpick his teachers. If a kid posed this question to you about a teacher, what would you say? I would tell my student they can still learn from a teacher they dislike. I would recommend they fake it until they make it. They likely will have to work with difficult bosses in the future, so they may as well figure out how to manage this type of situation while the stakes are low. 

The reverse is also true; you can still teach a kid you don’t like. Even if he openly mocks you, do your best to hide your contempt. Also, instead of focusing on developing new classroom management strategies, why not spend that energy getting to know him? You’re the adult. When he walks in at the start of the year, ask him about his summer and his hopes for the year. Show genuine interest and stay cool even if he pushes your buttons. Pay him a genuine compliment. If you can’t come up with anything on your own, ask other teachers what they like about him. 

My hope for you is that confessing your feelings here in writing has been therapeutic. Continue to lean on any coping strategies that help you feel calm and collected, whether it’s journaling or talking to a friend. When it comes to your student, aim for optimism. You may have a different, positive experience this time around. Give the student — and yourself — a chance. 

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to careerconfidential@pdkintl.org. All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers. 

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at https://bit.ly/2RNXVu3.

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