A few years back we had a group of kids in my grade that were seen as difficult. There were a larger than normal percentage of kids who had a history of behavior issues and academic challenges. I knew at the start of the year that I would need to work extra hard to build relationships with at least some of my students. Very quickly I identified a few who I thought would need to know I believed in them, cared about them, and had their back; kids who might not naturally assume that from the adults in their lives for various reasons. Those were the first kids to get postcards from me that year. Those were some of the first kids I ate lunch with. I went out of my way to have casual conversations with them. I invested a lot of energy in the first month of school to be sure we had a strong relationship. I knew it would matter as the year went on.
It did. And those kiddos are still ones I love. (In fact, I stopped one in the hallway today to tell her I’d heard a rumor she worked super hard on her reading state test. She retorted, “It’s not a rumor. It’s fact!” I could have jumped with the joy I felt.) That isn’t to say we didn’t have rough patches through the year because we did. Quite a few. That isn’t to say I didn’t get into stupid power struggles with them on occasion, because I did. It wasn’t smooth sailing by any means, but I am certain that investment early in the year helped us through those tough periods.
Then there was the one boy I had missed. I didn’t identify him as one who needed me to work so hard in the beginning. I read him as a kid who would trust me more naturally.
I was wrong.
I learned later his family had been through a rough summer with a significant tragedy before that year began. I totally missed that at the beginning of the year.
By late fall my error was clear. This boy and I struggled. He wasn’t strongly invested in our classroom community or in his own learning. Given the recent trauma in his life, that was reasonable. But I feel I missed an opportunity there. If I had invested in him the way I did in several of his classmates, from the first few weeks, maybe it would have played out differently. Maybe he would have felt more a part of our community. Maybe he would have trusted me more.
I can’t know for sure, but he is as strong a reminder to me of the importance of relationships as his challenging classmates are.