“You need to graduate for your Mama!” The student at the receiving end of the comment held his head down, quietly acknowledging the truth being loudly directed at him from the barrel chested veteran teacher across the room.  Weeks ago, another teacher tried unsuccessfully to get this kid to change his ways, but you can tell that hearing it from the advisor he’s had for a couple years might make him think a little harder about it. So when the kid said to these teachers that he wanted to work 50 hours a week as a grocery store manager while going to school, because he wanted to help get his mom and his family an actual house, his advisor called him out.  Over the next 20 minutes he walked his kid through the flaws in putting off school for a 50 hour a week job with as much animation and flair as you would see in a daytime talkshow.  After drawing a chart on the board, making the kid laugh and then bringing the kid to tears, he finally delivered the haymaker, “I’ve talked to your Mom, and she said her greatest wish is for you to come to school.  You need to graduate for your Mama!”

The kid was quiet.  At this point, he’d crying long enough that there was no need to act hide his emotions.  Certainly emotional, but it wasn’t if clear he “got it”.  He could wake up tomorrow and go to school inspired, but what is going to be behind this new resolve? Getting the kid to agree to new behavior will only be successful if he changes the thinking behind the behavior.  If someone just told him “Go to your internship!” and avoided the show that I got to witness, why would that student decide to listen?

  • Because this teacher is mean?
  • Because he’s ashamed of not being like his peers?
  • Because he’s “supposed” to go to college?

These passion behind these reasons will ultimately wane if this kid doesn’t connect school success to what he really wants.  If he doesn’t know WHY he needs to change, this talk will have little effect because they won’t address his current thinking, that his family needs him to work 50 hours a week.  No one knows this more than the 22 year-old veteran teacher who turned my lunch period into a Dr. Phil episode (if Dr. Phil used to play street ball at Rucker Park in the 80’s).

The kid was still looking down at the ground, clearly rethinking his life choices, and my co-worker saw me watching.  He darted over to my computer, dropped his stern countenance and flashed me the kind of smile you’d see Daniel Ocean give to Linus in one of those Clooney movies.  “You taking notes?” He said it twice, probably because I looked so confused.  “You were just really intense, and now you seem…Jovial?” He slipped back in to character while heading across the room to help the kid put his life back together.

How could I not keep mental tabs? These difficult conversations are really fascinating to me.  A teacher’s job is about planting and harvesting whenever a teachable moment arises, and these moments are hard to come by.  Students are not always interested in what you have to say about anything.  If I average out my whole career, I’m lucky to have a real conversation with kids about content each week.  Once or twice in each marking period I get a chance to drive home some messages about what success means, and perhaps once or twice a year do I get a chance to really talk to a kid about their choices, their consequences, their actual life.  I find it hard to make these moments stick, so I can’t help but try to learn myself at how to deliver the right message when the time comes.

The kid left to go his class with his head held high and a clear plan for what he needed to do to succeed.  Seconds later, everyone in the room breathed a sigh of relief except for the teacher.  Excited, he started going over the talk like a coach going over the game tape.  It became quickly clear that this only looked like an off-the-cuff outburst.  This conversation was in the works over past two years of being his advisor. He explained to me how he structured the whole conversation intentionally for a long time, and had been trying to reach this kid since the beginning of the cycle.  He saw an opening during the period before lunch when the students were completing an  advisory task (Draw A House by @Crstn85 which I had emailed out earlier that day).  After class he innocuously took the student to talk with the internship teacher in my office.  The students Mom had already called and told the teacher everything he needed about the students behavior, he just needed the right environment to try and get the student to rethink his crazy work schedule.  Once the internship teacher asked the student why he hadn’t been attending, the teacher slowly started asking the student about his priorities and the reasons behind it.   Suddenly the kid became an open book, and we had the perfect environment for what will surely be the one of the most important conversations this kid will have as a student in our school.

All the teachers in the room joined in post-conversation conversation.  After lunch ended and we had to go teach we certainly all thought about it some more.  “Who else needs to be reached?” There are a lot of kids in every school who needs direction, someone probably needs to sit with that kid and have some version of this conversation.  Lots of people dread this conversation.  You can end up demeaning the kid, pushing them away, or letting him off easy (which is what I usually do).  Letting those teachable moments pass without trying to get a kid on the right track however is often a worse outcome than any of the negative outcomes, and by trying you are learning for the future. Still, it is certainly a skill like any other, and it can be improved with practice and preparation.  Furthermore as a teacher you’re uniquely positioned to possess this skill that few in society really have. Who can you reach?