Turn Around

Dear Terrence,

What a turnaround you’ve had these last two weeks. If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it. (That’s not quite true: I would have believed it because I’ve seen it happen before, but not often. Not often enough, for certain: such kids are certainly outliers.) For the year to date, your Class Dojo positive behavior percentage has been right around 45%, which means you’re a negative influence on the class the majority of the time.

I’m not quite sure you realize the extent of your behavior. You couldn’t go more than a minute or two without talking to someone — and that’s not hyperbole but probably an understatement if anything. You turned in absolutely nothing for most of the year. When I ran a missing assignment report for the year to date a few weeks ago, you were missing 45 assignments, to go along with your 45% percent, I guess. At that point, I couldn’t have possibly given you more than 50 or 55 assignments, so that means you hadn’t turned in 85-90% of your work. Your grade was abysmal as well.

Then two or three weeks ago, something happened. What exactly, I really don’t know. Perhaps your mentor finally said something that really made an impact. Perhaps our counselor, who’s been pushing you all year, finally said something that made an impact. I’m afraid it wasn’t I who said something that made an impact because, I’m a little ashamed to admit, I had all but given up on you. You have to understand: I have 120 students. I can’t expend all my energy on one at-risk kid, and there comes a time when I have to say to myself, “I can keep going after this kid, which hasn’t worked for three-quarters of the year, or I can take that energy and apply it to that kid, who really has shown some growth.” Finite resources and all. So it wasn’t I, I’m afraid, but someone said or did something, and you’ve been a different person since then.

Last week, you turned in your article of the week and worked as hard as I’d ever seen you work. Sure, you didn’t turn in one assignment, but you did turn in two. That’s a vast improvement right there. Then there was that surprising Dojo percentage: 79%. I was shocked. You probably were, too.

Last weekend, I was wondering: “Will Terrence make it two weeks in a row or will things go back to normal?” Tuesday you approached me and said, “Mr. S, I left my article of the week at home, so I won’t be able to work on it as my bell ringer.” Wednesday, when you walked in the building and passed where I had hall duty, you waved your article at me: “Got it today!” You did your work; you set a good example. And that Dojo percentage? 90%. I like to frame things in reference to things you guys get, so I made the obvious parallel to basketball: “Think of that, Terrence: if you’re shooting 90% from the field and I’m your coach, I’m going to make sure you get paid whatever you have to get paid to stay on our team, and I’m going to tell the rest of the players, ‘Just carve out a little space for him and give him the ball. He’ll do the rest.'” That smile was unforgettable: “I know, right!?”

The truth is, Terrence, it’s not just in basketball that that 90% will get you whatever you dream of. Just about anywhere will work.

This week, it was an honor to have you in class. I can’t say I’ve always felt that way, though. Here’s hoping we both keep bring our A-game for the rest of the school year.

Impressed and still smiling,
Your Teacher



Dear Terrence,

When did a response to “Good morning” become optional? When did manners become a matter of personal preference?

For you, considering all that has passed between us, my behavior likely seems two-faced. You think, “Here he is trying to be all nice to me, and when I get to class, he’s going to be on my back about everything.” That’s not an accurate interpretation of my behavior, though. You see, I won’t deny a simple fact: despite the fact that your behavior often is the most irritating aspect of my entire day, despite the fact that your behavior disrupts the whole class, despite the fact that your behavior often descends into outright disrespect (never mind the fact that disruptive behavior is itself disrespectful) regardless of how politely I redirect you, and despite the fact that some of your behavior seems downright spiteful, I try to approach each day as if it were the first day you and I ever encountered each other. I try to give you the benefit of the doubt each and every day. In short, I try to start fresh daily.

It seems only fair. You are, after all, only a kid. Your personality and behaviors have not completely congealed, and there’s always hope that you will mature during the school year and come out the other side a different kid. It does happen. And so I want to foster that possibility, however remote, in your behavior by starting anew every morning, and the simplest way I can do that is simply saying as cheerfully as I can muster without sounding false, “Good morning.”

Ironically, this type of behavior extends even into the adult world. There have been plenty of times, in both my teaching career and in other jobs I’ve held, that I’ve come to work with a sore spot for some colleague or other. It’s hard to leave it all behind, and sometimes that sore spot gets irritated just by seeing that person, and the last thing in the world I want to do is to be cheerful and polite. But that’s part of the game. It’s not being false or two-faced to hide those true feelings; it’s called being professional. It’s called being an adult, realizing that these little rituals like “Good morning” are just that, rituals that really mean nothing more than “I acknowledge your existence this morning.” True, it is a shortened form of an older greeting, “I wish you a good morning.” But even my worst enemies I wish a good morning: if things are going well for them, they’re not likely to take anything out on me.

So let’s try this again. I’ll say “Good morning, Terrence,” and you say, “Good morning, Mr. Scott.” And we both know we’ve started our day off with each other on a positive note.

First practice is tomorrow morning.

Kindest regards,
Your Teacher


Dear Susan,

I know you might have been a bit concerned about the weather today. After all, it was supposed to a potentially-tornado-producing cell, and because we don’t get a lot of tornadoes around here, you probably wanted to play it safe. But what you didn’t see were all the children in the hall way, surreptitiously texting and calling their parents, suggesting probably something like this: “Everyone else is getting early dismissal.”

So what was the upshot of all that? Almost half the students got a weather-related early dismissal for some rain.

Don’t worry, though: I didn’t let it phase me at all. I went along with my lessons as I’d originally planned. I worried that I might want to change things a bit. After all, this means your daughter will have one fewer day to work on the project in class, but I didn’t think it was really fair to the other students to change plans in mid-stride because of the decisions of their peers’ parents. I hope you can understand.

Smiling but just a bit frustrated,
Your Daughter’s Teacher

The Dodge

Dear Terrence,

You were so frustrated in class today when I told you to put up your phone, but there was an irony in that: because I maintain perfect control of my emotions in the classroom, you could never tell by my tone or body language that I was highly frustrated with you. (That’s a skill you need to work on, but that’s another letter.) I tell you to put that phone away every single day. I’ve referred you to the administrator for it, and they’ve assigned you suspensions for it. “Refusal to obey” is what they call it. At this point, I could write you up every single day for that, but truth be told, I know it won’t change the behavior, and writing referrals is just a soul-sucking waste of time.

All that, too, is another letter.

What I really wanted to address with you is how you reacted to my simple, calm instruction: “Put your phone away, Terrence.”

You thought you had me: “It’s not my phone. It’s hers.”

I have to admit, I sometimes have difficulty restraining rage-like screaming with you, but that time, I really wanted to laugh. I really wanted to say, “Are you serious?! You’re taking issue over my lack of clairvoyance about whose phone it is? I was somehow supposed to know that? And it was supposed to make any difference at all in how I responded?”

If that’s how you continue to respond, if that’s how you continually try to dodge trouble, you’ll find it doesn’t work well at all.

I suspect you already know that. I suspect you were trying to provoke something out of me. Surely you’ve noticed, as I noted above, that I am not the kind of teacher who displays his emotions for all to see. I don’t yell. I don’t insult. I don’t repay your disrespect with more disrespect. In part, I do this because I’m trying to model for you what I expect of you. If I want patience, I have to show it. If I want respect, I should be giving it. That’s how we teach others how to treat us. (That is also another letter.)

More broadly speaking, though, I behave that way because I have patience. Great patience. More patience than you’ve imagined in your life. I leave behind more patience in my toe nail clippings than you’ve ever managed to muster in your entire life. I am a paragon of patience. I am a champion of patience. I have to be: I teach eighth grade.

Patiently waiting for different behavior from you (but not naive enough to expect it tomorrow),
Your Teacher

On God

Dear Terrence,

Do you ever give any thought to the possibility that God, quite frankly, is tired of you putting things on him? I hear you say that almost countless times throughout the day: whenever you want to convince someone that you’re speaking in earnest, that you’re not joking (or “playing” as you call it), you put it “on God.” For some time, I heard people putting things on people’s graves: “I put that on my grandma’s grave!” These days, though, I only hear you putting stuff “on God.”

“No, for real! I put that on God!” you say when someone thinks you’re exaggerating.

“On God! On God!” you say whenever someone thinks you’re lying.

The most obvious concern someone might have with that is the emptiness it implies. (And if you’re religious, it’s on the cusp of blasphemy.) If you’re willing to put almost everything “on God,” then you don’t really consider putting things “on God” of much value. What we value, we use sparingly; this, you use in great abundance. It’s the same principle as the boy who cried wolf: say it enough, and it becomes meaningless.

What’s just as concerning but not as obvious is the fact that you must joke so much that you must convince people when you’re serious. People’s automatic assumption with you is to doubt it, to think you’re being facetious. In other words, you open your mouth to speak and people automatically disbelieve you. And so when you want to make sure people know that you’re not joking, you proclaim that whatever assertion you’ve just made, you’ve made it “on God.”

Maybe you should start relying on your own reputation for telling the truth than putting everything on God. The boy who cried wolf and everything…

Your Teacher

Good Morning

Dear Teresa,

There are a few basic social skills I would have thought you might have by now. You have had, after all, fourteen years’ experience on this planet, and you’re in your ninth year of school, counting kindergarten. I would have assumed that you would have picked up some of the more elementary social skills by now, either by direct instruction or by observing others. How to respond to “Good morning” said with a smile is one of those skills.

Let me assure you, your various responses to me when I said “Good morning” to you were all strong evidence that you lack this basic social skill.

Your first response, “Leave me alone,” implies that you don’t know what “Good morning” means. It’s not antagonistic. It’s not provocative. It’s merely a greeting. If I’d given you a hard time about how you behaved in class yesterday, then “Leave me alone” might be a proper response — provided I was a peer and not your teacher. However, to “Good morning,” the usual response, no matter how irritated you are, is, ironically, simply “Good morning.”

You second response was nonverbal but actually said more than your verbal response a few minutes earlier. You see, I thought I’d give you another shot at it, but this time, you decided to take it to another level. In holding up your hand by your face, palm out (that gesture known colloquially as “talk to the hand”), you were suggesting with that body language that you would, if you could, shove me out of your space. Of course, there was a good fifteen feet between us, so I was hardly in your space.

Your third response, this time to being instructed on how to reply to “Good morning,” was your most direct, but it’s the one that will cause you the most trouble in life if you continue employing it as a response to “Good morning.” You see, when someone is wishing you a good morning, to tell them “Get out of my face” is about as rude as you can be. When that someone is in fact someone in a position of authority, it’s just plain dumb. For now, it results in a referral. In the future, it will result in being fired. Again, and again, and again. I would venture to say that there is no situation in which you could say “Get out of my face” to someone in a position of authority over you that would not result in the most unpleasant of consequences.

I, for example, cannot imagine saying that to a colleague let alone to my principal. My job would be gone, and rightfully so.

That’s the future I see for you unless you can learn to suck it up, resist the urge to say what you want to say, and simply say, “Good morning.”

Your Teacher

Body Language

Dear Terrence,

The fact today that you didn’t know your body language was so disrespectful — not to mention your tone — is only mildly surprising. What is more unexpected was the question you asked next, though it shouldn’t have been.

“You’re going to tell me that my body language is disrespectful even when it’s not my intention?”

To begin with, I’m impressed with that construction. That you would use the word “intention” like that — for some reason, it was surprising. Perhaps that’s because of the way you’ve spoken for the rest of the year.

But more surprising was the fact that you didn’t know that body language can be disrespectful without intention. I work hard to teach my own children just such things: there are things you can say and do that, even though you don’t mean disrespect, show disrespect. In the matter of disrespect, especially when dealing with people in positions of authority over you, it’s the question of interpretation that is often more important than the question of intention.

I don’t think you realized what your body was doing, though, because it’s hard to imagine someone sitting as you sat without realizing how much disrespect you were communicating as I spoke to you.

  • First of all, you were slouched down in your chair. This communicates a lack of effort, that you don’t even care to sit up and pay attention. It suggests you’re just enduring the current moment.
  • Next, you had your elbow on the table with your hand resting on a balled fist. A balled fist always suggests aggression. And having your head down like that communicates, “You are so exhausting me with this nonsense…”
  • Most tellingly, your facial expressions exuded disrespect. There was that scowl: eyebrows slanted downward, a frown. Your nostrils flared occasionally as well.
  • There was also your inability (or unwillingness) to make even cursory eye contact. Refusing to look at someone who is talking to you is about as disrespectful as you can get. It’s also a little immature.

I only mentioned your body language, but there were other non-verbal cues that suggested disrespect.

  • Your tone of voice when you mustered an occasional, monosyllabic response was edged with anger and contempt.
  • Your continual tooth sucking — don’t know what else to call it, so I’ll call it what you call it — suggests that you would say something to me but it’s not worth my time. You start to take the breath to speak, then realize I’m not worth it, and open your mouth to let the now-unneeded breath out.

To your credit, when I pointed all this out to you, you began slowly to change. You sat up, you made a bit of eye contact, and you stopped sucking your teeth.

But here’s the big problem: when you do this with me, I take this to be another teaching moment. It’s tiring, that’s for sure: “Here I go again, having to teach kids things they should already know by this age, things that have nothing to do with my subject matter.” But still, though I feel overworked with such issues, I see it as my job. I teach in order to prepare you for the future, and sometimes, interpreting figurative language seems the least significant subject matter for your success. However, you will soon encounter people who are not interested in teaching you these things, not interested in even dealing with it. These people will probably have the ability to make your life very miserable very quickly. I’m talking about bosses, and they’ll fire you in such a situation.

I know that’s meaningless to you. You say things like, “I’ll just get another job.” Unfortunately, getting other job when you’ve lost one is not like getting another pencil from you next teacher when you’ve lost it in the previous class.

I hope we can get this habit of yours under control before you head off to high school (there are teachers there who will treat you like the aforementioned boss), but even if we can’t, I hope we’ll continue making progress.

Your Teacher