Wednesday, August 4, 2010

My Worst Student Ever!

A while back, I overheard two teachers talking about their "worst" students. I started thinking about who I would consider my "worst." As it turns out, there are quite a few students I could consider the "worst," but one that stands out above all the rest.

It was my first year of teaching. I had replaced the regular teacher who had taken maternity leave. The regular teacher had been gone for several weeks and the students had been through at least half a dozen substitute teachers. I think they thought they could get rid of me, too, but I was there for the long haul.

Darla (not her real name) was a 6th grader and she was full of attitude. I didn't know much about her, but quickly learned that she was going to defy me in everything. If I gave her an assignment, she would complain that it was too many problems or that she didn't understand what she was supposed to do. I don't know why she complained because she never did any of the work I assigned anyway.

No matter what I said or did, she found fault. And it wasn't just with me, but with her classmates as well. She argued about everything and she didn't hesitate to use the colorful language of a drunken sailor (no offense to sailors). Giving her detention was pointless because she would never serve it. Sending her to the office was a waste of time because she enjoyed the time out of the classroom. She lied; she argued and fought; she had no self-control, self-discipline, or self-esteem. She didn't care much about herself or anyone or anything else.

I learned that if I tried anything, I would get attacked verbally. I couldn't motivate her; I could barely talk to her without being the target of a barrage of swear words. As a first year teacher I had very few skills to deal with her and her behavior. I was at a loss and found that ignoring her seemed to be the best strategy. If I just left her alone, she would stay quiet. She would sit and draw pictures, but at least she wasn't yelling or picking fights. Of course, she wasn't doing her school work either.

Needless to say, I was not too surprised that at the end of 6th grade, at the age of 13, Darla was pregnant. The only surprising thing to me was that anyone was able to get that close to her. She was like a wild animal who kept everyone at a distance. Obviously, my opinion was not completely accurate.

During that summer, I lost track of her. Imagine my surprise later that year when she moved in next door to me. Darla had married her boyfriend (she was 14 now) and, with the help of his parents, the happy couple had purchased the house next door to me. I was speechless and avoided them as much as possible. I kept wondering how, of all the people in the world, she was now my next door neighbor.

Darla had a baby girl. I was still keeping a low profile and don't think she had yet realized who her neighbor was. Then one day Darla saw me. She was outside with her baby and came running to me to show me her daughter. She was so excited about her baby girl. She was smiling and laughing and so happy. Not one swear word came from her lips. It was almost as if the Darla I knew had been replaced by the Stepford model.

Darla and her husband lived next to me for about 7 or 8 years. Darla had 3 children, all girls, by the time she was 20. She never went back to school, but did get her GED. The oldest daughter had severe asthma and Darla had a dangerous heart condition by the time she was 25, both linked to the early age of her first pregnancy. But Darla was a changed person. She was a wonderful wife and a terrific mother. Her children grew up loved and well-cared for. She was nothing like the Darla I first met in that classroom my first year of teaching.

Yes, I would consider Darla one of my worst students. But she taught me several great lessons and I'm so glad I learned them my first year of teaching. I learned that teachers need to be careful how they treat their students because those students may end up being your next door neighbor or your accountant or your doctor. I learned that students you consider "lost causes" may not be as "lost" as you think. Some just need to find their way in this world. Darla found her way through her husband, her husband's parents, and her children. And I learned that your worst student may not actually be a bad person. Darla hated school and everything associated with it, but I found that she was really a good person and I'm so happy she found her way.

Over the years I have lost track of her, but if I ever see her again, I will thank her for making me a better teacher.

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  1. Awesome! I've known a few "Darlas" in my time as a teacher as well. The real lost causes are more seldom than we think. I was surprised to see that one of my worst students was working so hard a year later as a cashier at my local grocery store. She was courteous and fast and accurate. We can't write off those students who don't like our classes!

  2. Contribed. Cute story, but I still have no idea HOW she helped you, let alone why.

    Google pls to a better job with my search next time,

    1. To Anonymous: Did you mean "contrived?" If so, I'm not sure how a true story can be contrived. This girl, "Darla," helped me realize that I should not give up on any student, no matter how they resist an education. I was a better teacher because I learned that there is a way to get through to every student. You just have to find it. Sometimes I was able to find that motivator, sometimes I wasn't able to find it. But I was a better teacher for trying. I'm sorry this article was not what you wanted. Perhaps you need to write to Google directly.