It was 1994 and my second year of teaching in a district in suburban Pittsburgh. While most of my teaching schedule included gifted classes and college preparatory physics courses, I was also scheduled to teach two sections of a science class that offered students their “last chance for graduation.” At least that’s how my principal at the time described the class. All graduating students needed to earn a certain number of science credits and this class served those students who hadn’t been able to earn those credits yet. I had taught the class the previous year and found it to be an interesting mix of all sorts of students. Sure, some of the students had difficulty getting motivated and others struggled to learn in more traditional classroom settings, but I had navigated my first year and learned how to make it work. With a year of teaching under my belt, I felt like I was prepared for the new academic year and to work with a new group of students. I didn’t know at the time how one student would test that belief.
Dan (not his real name) strolled into my third period class looking like a middle-aged man who was part of a biker gang. While he was only 17, he easily looked like he could be 40. He had a thick beard, wore a black leather vest and had tattoos covering both of his arms. While lots of people have tattoos today, in 1994, very few people had them. Even now, the types of tattoos that Dan sported back then are rarely seen. On one arm, Dan had a tattoo of a demonic-looking clown holding a severed head. On another arm, he had several that showcased violence and destruction. I have to admit that I was instantly intimidated by Dan. And that intimidation proved to be warranted.
To say that Dan challenged me as a teacher would be an understatement. He questioned my instructional choices and tested my classroom policies. He disrupted class discussions and regularly turned well-planned lessons into fits of chaos. Each morning, I’d study the absentee reports and hope that Dan’s name would appear on the list so I could have a day of respite from his misbehavior. For the better part of the first few months of that academic year, Dan lived rent free in my brain. Every professional moment was spent worrying about the chaos that Dan would unleash in my class.
But then, things changed. I stopped Dan one day on his way out of class and asked how we could work together to make things a little more positive. I explained that he couldn’t graduate without my class and I couldn’t create a good classroom environment without his cooperation. We were stuck together, whether we liked it or not. And we needed to better trust and respect each other.
Over the next few months, things got better. The classroom disruptions disappeared and his challenges became less frequent. Dan began to let his guard down and I came to better understand him as a student and as a person. He came from a poorer section of the district and was being raised by a single dad. His tattoos and clothing were his way of letting his wealthier peers know that he wasn’t one of them. He was an outsider and he wore his biker gang attire like a coat of armor. It protected him and hid him at the same time. He didn’t see much point with school or even with graduating, but that single conversation changed our relationship and our classroom interactions. I’m happy to report that Dan graduated at the end of the year. I was even invited to his graduation party.
Sadly, it doesn’t always work out that way. Every teacher has worked with challenging students. Every educator has had a student doubt their ability or question their decisions. But I’ve found that most students will respond like Dan when given the chance. For the rest? I guess I’m still working on that.