Wednesday / May 29

How to Champion Your Most Challenging Student

Mr. Jones clocks in at 6:45 a.m. and enters his classroom. It is the start of the third week of the new school year. On today’s agenda: a school assembly in the morning, a genius hour after lunch, and students will be finishing their science projects before the dismissal bell. Mr. Jones is optimistic about the day. His 4th grade students appear to be buying into the classroom norms and initiatives that were carefully planned throughout the latter part of the summer. Parents have responded well and administration has provided some great feedback to Mr. Jones’s efforts so far. Despite the strong start, Mr. Jones enters his classroom with a lingering problem that he appears to have no resolution to.

A student named John has not assimilated himself into the unit that the rest of his peers and teacher have begun to form. He is often tardy, sleeps, and has an overall negative attitude toward any instruction. Mr. Jones has already tried talking to John about his behavior, made phone calls to John’s mother, and allows him to earn various incentives throughout the day. These efforts have proven to be futile. John continues to display much of the same behaviors and a considerable lack of interest to interact with the rest of the classroom. While discouraging, Mr. Jones is not losing hope. In fact, Mr. Jones planned throughout the weekend to find another way to reach John and get him engaged.

At 8:00am, students start to enter the classroom. Breakfasts are passed out, attendance is taken, and morning announcements are conducted. Mr. Jones looks at the empty desk that is assigned to John and hopes that it will be occupied soon. Fifteen minutes later, John walks in with a tardy pass. John doesn’t acknowledge any classmates or Mr. Jones and walks to his desk. John sits down and starts to put his head down. He then notices something inside his desk. It is a note.

The assembly this morning seems kind of boring – want to shoot some hoops instead? – Mr. Jones 

Puzzled, John looks up. Mr. Jones gives him a look that says, “You interested?” John puts the note in his desk and puts his head down. After morning announcements, Mr. Jones asks Mrs. Smith, the paraprofessional, to line the students up and walk them to the assembly. Mrs. Smith was informed of Mr. John’s potential activity during the assembly and all the students line up except for John. The students exit the room and the room is now occupied by Mr. Jones and his potential basketball opponent.

Mr. Jones knows that John’s favorite sport is basketball. He learned this from John’s mother on a previous phone call. Mr. Jones looks over and sees that John still has his head down. A basketball is pulled out from underneath the teacher’s desk.

Mr. Jones: “Look… if you need me to spot you some points, let me know.”

John cracks half a smile and stands up. Mr. Jones and John then walk outside to the basketball court.

For the next thirty minutes, Mr. Jones and John play basketball, talk about their favorite shows and music, and even start to complement each other’s jump shots. After the game, Mr. Jones looks at John.

Mr. Jones: “John, I really enjoyed this. We need to do this again.”

The two walk back into the classroom. The classroom returns from the assembly. Mr. Jones begins math class. He starts off math with a game of “Trashketball.” The students are tasked with shooting five paper balls into the classroom trash can. Students track their shots made to shots attempted ratio and write it down on the whiteboard. Mr. Jones always sets a classroom percentage goal. If they achieve the goal, the classroom gets to celebrate by participating in an additional ten minutes of break time in the afternoon. An incentive sought after by most.

Mr. Jones writes down 70% as the classroom goal. He then turns to the class.

Mr. Jones: “I know for a fact that one student in here can beat me in a game of ‘trashketball.’ If John can beat me in a game of ‘trashketball,’ the classroom gets a surprise morning break for ten minutes after math class.”

The classroom immediately begins encouraging John to accept the challenge and telling him to beat Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones glances over at John with an inviting look to participate. John slowly stands up and the classroom begins cheering and roaring. A chant of John’s name begins to echo throughout the classroom.

For the next four minutes, John and Mr. Jones engaged in intense competition. The classroom continued to chant, yell, and scream when John made baskets. Down to the last shot, Mr. Jones took a shot to win the game but missed badly to the right. The classroom erupts in celebration as John is the champion of “Trashketball.” John returns to his desk as his classmates continue to provide praise and appreciation for his efforts. John nervously smiles.

During the morning break, Mr. Jones notices that John has moved to the game station in the classroom and is playing a card game with two other peers for the first time.

At the completion of the morning break, John returns to his desk. He notices a new note that has been placed in his desk. He opens it up.

You were a champion today. I’m so proud of you. Rematch tomorrow at lunch? – Mr. Jones 

On the drive home, Mr. Jones realizes that he can hopelessly encourage, make phone calls, and provide incentives to his most challenging student. However, the way to champion and connect with his most challenging student is to genuinely seek out a way to establish a relationship with him.

Mr. Jones feels that this was the first time he truly made an honest effort to connect with John. He made John a champion today and couldn’t wait to see him tomorrow.

Written by

Adam Brown is a K-12 Principal in Virginia. Adam works with students who present challenging behaviors that require additional supports and interventions. He was recently selected into the 2016 ASCD class of Emerging Leaders and Influence Leaders and was recognized as a 2014 AERA Emerging Scholar. Adam provides professional development on effective programming measures that educators can take to educate our most challenging students.

Latest comments

  • Every day is a new day. Our most challenging students often have barriers that seem like they will never go down. We must focus on taking it one day at a time and developing the relationships necessary for these students to learn. It takes a true educator to accomplish this.

  • In addition to the entire book, this article echoes the now well-known story of Tito in chapter 8 of the ASCD best seller “Hanging In–Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most.” The story of Tito illustrates how difficult it can be to reach every student, even when the teacher and student share a love of basketball. Thanks Adam for continuing the conversation.

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