In the Classroom
Teaching the Former You
December 17, 2018
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Ashley Corey


Every teacher can attest that there are going to be students in each class that are tougher to teach than others. There will be students who are not fully on board with every teacher that they have, and teachers who may not make meaningful connections with every student that they have. There is beauty in this. Our students are unique people that vary wildly. Some personalities click and others simply do not. I do not believe it is our place to try and bend students to our will and make them “likable,” particularly when the most strong willed of them oftentimes have some of the most brilliant moments.

Over my first couple of years teaching, I had to develop strategies to not let these feelings slip out. After all, not being someone that I particularly liked does not disqualify a student from the education and learning that they deserve. In fact, we would all be morally remiss if we repeated to students the advice that they do not necessarily have to like a teacher to learn something from them. However, it certainly makes the road much rockier.

I would love to write a piece about how I have consistently overcome any level of preference and found a way to reach every student that has come through my doors, but that would not be honest. I have been to some wonderful trainings that help difficulties presented by the “tough kids.” The AVID site team at our high school does a fantastic job helping us understand how circumstance, neurological balances, and home lives influence every action that students take while they are at school.

The most important phrase that I try to keep running in my head is “don’t take it personally, it isn’t about you.” That holds true the vast majority of the time. Some kids simply do not understand how to meet expectations at school, others act with aggression or apathy in the extreme. These kinds of “tough” have great strategies to help both teacher and student move forward and start to provide positive experiences when the student comes to school.

I can adapt and implement strategies day in and day out with great success, but I continue to struggle the most with students who are just like I was. I was a tough kid. I was good at getting the information, but my behavior and disregard for the rules put that in jeopardy much of the time. Like many teachers, I went into this field because education made such a huge difference in my life. Education was something that no one could take away from me, and that matters to a kid who has had very much taken away. I had several teachers who gave me many more chances than I probably deserved, and I count myself lucky to have a few very well placed people in my path that changed my trajectory. I almost wasn’t so.

When I see students enacting the same behaviors that I did, I want so badly to effectively communicate that it doesn’t have to be this way, this can be your safe place, keep working and all that other stuff will go away, etc. But I wouldn’t have listened, and many times neither do they. If we could simply sit kids down and give them all of the wisdom and knowledge that we have learned through trial and error, it would be wonderful. However, that’s not really how this all works. I have found solace in knowing that trial and error worked for me, even if the road was quite rocky, and there is no reason that the same road cannot work for them too. I was forgiven by role models even when I did not deserve to be, and I can be that forgiving role model to this particular brand of tough kid. If school was my sanctuary, then it is now my responsibility to maintain that sanctuary, even if gratitude doesn’t come at the pace I would like.

It is very easy to write off the tough kids, especially when the timing of the year amplifies their cries for help while our stamina wanes. I try to remember in this time that students who need the most love ask for it the worst ways and that they need someone to continue to believe in them the most. Teachers come from many different backgrounds. Some were fantastic students, some come into teaching from other careers, and some were tough kids. I would like to imagine that others feel this similar struggle. I can adapt strategies and implement professional development day in and day out, but looking at a student who is a mirror to your former self becomes much more difficult. In those difficult times, I remember who I needed, and that makes teaching tough kids a battle worth fighting.

Ashley has taught at West High School in Knox County Tennessee for the last five years. She has worked as an Economics, U.S. History and Personal Finance teacher. She has served as Senior Class Dean for the past three years and worked on the Upper House Small Learning Community’s Leadership for that duration. She has served as Leadership Team Secretary and Professional Development presenter in Economics for Knox County for two years. She has also served as a Lead Teacher and Instructional Support Team member. She received her Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville in 2011 and her Master of Science in Teacher Education from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville in 2012. She also serves as a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow, engaging her colleagues in providing classroom feedback to the Tennessee Department of Education on public education policy issues.

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