Every once in a while, you have a moment where you try something totally new and weird, and it works. I had a moment like that recently, and I’d like to share it with you all. Also, I need to document it because it is the Friday before Spring Break and I have already almost put my pants on backward from sheer exhaustion, so there’s a good chance I’ll forget it ever happened.
So, I have a this student, who we will call Justin Timberlake (not his real name, but I wish I’d been his teacher. Especially during those Ramen noodle hair days). Justin had, for the better part of two weeks, been trying a new persona. This new Justin was snarky, rude, and did zero work. Needless to say, I was not a big fan of Justin 2.0.
Finally, on Thursday, I asked him what was going on after I confiscated yet another paper airplane. “Why aren’t you doing any work, dude?” I asked.
“It’s just my personality, man,” Justin replied, brushing past me and throwing his book onto the bookshelf. A few other books toppled off the shelf, and he left them lying on the floor.
“It’s not the Justin I know,” I said. “The Justin I know will need to come in tomorrow during lunch and return all of this energy he’s expending.” (this is from Love and Logic. Instead of making kids come in during lunch and sitting there doing nothing, we “invite” kids in to “return energy,” usually in the form of cleaning some tables or picking up books. Also, the idea is to not lecture, since it is highly likely they know they were being less than awesome humans. Instead, you try and use that time to build relationships. It works pretty darn well, actually. Especially if you can start saying, “return energy to me” in any sort of a genuine way.)
“Yeah, that’s not gonna happen,” he responded, which elicited giggles from his newest pack of friends. He picked up his backpack and left the room. I did not see him at lunch that day.
That interaction stuck with me all day. And all that evening. And all that weekend. What would I do if he didn’t show up? If I went to the lunch room and tried to convince him to come to my room, I’d end up in a public power struggle. If I ignored that it had ever happened, who knows what behavior he’d start trying on next.
Talking it over with a colleague, I said, “I’d expect this sort of juvenile behavior from like, a fifth or sixth grader.” And then it hit me. Sixth grade.
Monday morning rolled around, and as I saw him coming toward my room, I knew I just had to do it, and do it confidently.
“Hey Justin, can I talk to you?” I said, ushering him over.
“Yeah?” he replied, raising his eyebrows.
“Well, I was thinking,” I said, “that your behavior recently is not that of a 7th grader. This sort of immaturity is more reminiscent of a sixth grader, don’t you think?”
Justin’s brow furrowed. He had no idea where I was going with this.
“A 7th grader wouldn’t be throwing paper airplanes,” I said, “a 7th grader does their work, and when they’re called out on it, they come in a return energy.”
“Okay…” Justin said, eyeing me warily.
“So, I’ve decided that if you are going to choose to act like a sixth grader, then that’s where you’ll go for this period.” I let the words sink in as my other students filed into my classroom.
Justin smirked at first, then had it dawn on him. “Wait, do I have to…?”
“Yep,” I said, “You’re going to Mrs. Johnson’s room for language arts today. Follow me.” I started walking down the hall. He fell into step behind me.
“Choices have consequences,” I said as we walked.
“I know,” Justin replied softly. “If I had just come in at lunch for 15 minutes, this wouldn’t be happening. I should have made a better choice.”
I dropped him off in a sixth grade classroom, where my colleague had a desk ready for him. I assured Justin that as soon as his work was done, he was welcome to join us back in seventh grade. He nodded solemnly.
As I walked back to my room, I was wondering if I’d made the right decision. Would Justin just push back harder? Would he act out even more because he was embarrassed? Had I just made everything worse?
Twenty minutes later, Justin came back. He nodded at me, and said, “I finished my work, Ms. Mocha.” I just nodded in reply. He sat down at his seat and got out his notebook.
That was two weeks ago. Justin has not only left his new persona behind, he left it waaaay behind. He threw the old Justin in the garbage and never looked back. Recently, during work time, he brought me a rough draft, and I used the opportunity to tell him that I’d noticed how hard he’d been working.
“Yeah,” he said shyly. “I’ve decided to try harder. I want to show my mom that I can be a good student. I want to focus now.”
“Well,” I replied, trying not to choke on the knot in my throat. “These types of choices have consequences, too. I’m proud of you, Justin. We’ve all noticed how awesome you’re doing these days.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “I’m not going back to sixth grade. Once was enough, Ms. Mocha.”
“Yes it was!” I said, laughing. Seriously though. No one needs to go through sixth grade more than once.
So there it is. My Mr. Miyagi moment. The lesson was learned, and hopefully, it stuck. I don’t know if it would work with every student, but it worked for Justin. And maybe it’ll only work once. But once is enough.