That Thorn in Your Side is Trying to Tell You Something

It always amazed me how, on occasion, I would run into one of my former teachers or principals in the grocery store and they would remember me. (I never got into any trouble!) Although formally I have been out of the classroom for close to 18 years, I do still remember many of my students. I imagine that many of you reading this can relate. Odd though it may seem, I remember the “thorns in my side” almost as fondly as my highest performing, non-behavior-issue learners. Much like my most struggling learners that I had to work harder to teach, and my highest performers that I had to work harder to continually challenge, those “thorns” challenged me to do my best work on multiple fronts.

I remember the “thorns in my side” almost as fondly as my highest performing, non-behavior-issue learners.

Teaching 6th Grade in a school that was 99% free/reduced lunch meant a stimulating environment every day. Of course I had more than my fair share of students with discipline histories: I was the only Black teacher in my grade level. At times, when others couldn’t handle a particular student, the assistant principle would bring the child to me for the day. But one young, Black man (we’ll call him DJ), really stretched me.

DJ was mine all day, every day. DJ had been suspended multiple times every year since kindergarten. The older he got, the closer he came to maxing out suspension days and facing expulsion. As a 6th grader, he only read on the 2nd grade level. His math skills were equally gapped. He had tremendous unfinished learning. He was intelligent. He had high potential, but his time out of school on suspension each year contributed significantly to his level of achievement.


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He had high potential, but his time out of school on suspension each year contributed significantly to his level of achievement.

DJ was always angry. He had no impulse control. He was the oldest of eight children with a mother only fourteen years his senior. His life trajectory was not good. Yet, I was determined. This was one young, Black man for whom I would not support the system’s funneling of him into the school to prison pipeline. What to do with DJ?

I won’t bore you with the number and type of accommodations we made to keep him focused. It was a constant process of retooling, revisioning, and counseling with him. It involved several committed people in our school. Ultimately, the right formula was a mixture of daily achievement in academic endeavors and knowing my classroom was a place of refuge when he found himself losing control of his behavior. One day, a young female student looked at him wrong and he punched her. Hard. It nearly broke my heart. I just couldn’t see him spiraling back when we had made so much progress. 

I would not support the system’s funneling of him into the school to prison pipeline.

Now here’s the really encouraging part: As we sat in the office handling the paperwork, DJ asked if he could still come to school for reading while he was suspended! We arranged for the school’s community liaison to pick him up from home, drive him to school, walk him to reading class, be there when reading was over, and drive him back home. I’m sure what we did was completely illegal, but the statute of limitations must be expired by now.

DJ made tremendous academic and behavioral gains that year. Unfortunately, I never saw him again after that June. It was my last year in the classroom. 

When I read this post by @jdm1906, it made me laugh and think of DJ and the many more like him that came through my Southside Stockton classroom. I’d take that double dog dare in a heartbeat. And I’ll triple dog dare you to rise even higher. Make those calls to the families of the most behaviorally and academically challenging students in your school or classroom. I always say, “Our parents are sending us the best children they have. They aren’t keeping the ‘good ones’ locked up at home.” See every child as an opportunity to do your best work. That’s what #Equity is all about.


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