You might be surprised who is engaged

What can you do with a student who resists your efforts to engage him, scoffs at your thoughtfully planned assignments and slyly undermines you in class, without ever doing anything overt enough to warrant discipline?

I’ve been working on that puzzle for years, with varying degrees of success.

Sometimes, the best you can do is to keep trying, be patient and take the long view. It helps to have had a student like James.

James and several of his buddies were in my class in the fall of 2001. I remember that semester well because our building was torn up; we had started school late due to construction delays; I was traveling to a different classroom every hour; and the 9/11 attacks happened right before the kids returned.

It was a somber, dispiriting fall, and every day felt like drudgery in hallways dim with mine lighting. The worst of all was 6th hour Civil Liberties, held in a dank, windowless basement classroom. It was my 8th year of teaching, and I felt like I should have mastered classroom management by then, but James and his friends tested me every day.

I would try to generate a serious discussion about whether the Bill of Rights protects hate speech or gay rights, and they’d give each other knowing glances and smirks, making me wonder if there were undercurrents of racism and homophobia — or if they were just immature.

I would try to get them to see nuances of an issue like the death penalty, and they would chime in with one-line arguments like, “Well, it’s an eye for an eye.”

I obsessed over trying to engage them, and I was sure I had failed. Every day when they left, I was exhausted and discouraged. I wanted to punish them somehow, but it was hard to pin down what they were doing wrong. They just got under my skin and made me feel like a fraud.

Eventually the semester ended, they moved on, and I was relieved. But of course, the story doesn’t end there.

Years later, I ran into James in a grocery store parking lot. I recognized him and instinctively said hello. He reacted with surprise, we talked briefly, then went our separate ways.

A few days later, he sent me an email that changed the way I think about that semester — and about connecting to students.

In it, James wrote a lot about his life in the intervening years. He told me about a family member who was the victim of a violent assault and another family member who had been convicted in a drug-related homicide.

He told me he had wrestled deeply with his emotions and principles during that time, but that what he had learned in my class had helped him make sense of things — because I had taught him that the world wasn’t black and white. He said I had helped him realize that there are no easy answers in the criminal justice system, that it’s possible to care about criminals as well as the victims. He thanked me.

In 2001, I didn’t think I had engaged James at all, but it turned out I was wrong. He had been paying attention all along, and my class, which I thought had meant nothing to him, had turned out to be a lifeline. 

I had misread the situation because I was young and wanting affirmation. I was still a new teacher trying hard, and I wanted James and his friends to like me or appreciate me in some tangible way, but I was mistaking lack of rapport for lack of engagement.

Now when I have a resistant student who just doesn’t seem to connect with me, I am much more patient. I remind myself that it’s not about me — and that I may be connecting in ways that I don’t recognize right away. I don’t let them undermine my confidence, at least not as much as I used to.

Instead, I think of James and I stay the course, trying to build a relationship one difficult day at a time. It’s not an easy solution, but it’s the best I’ve come up with so far.