Some of the details of this account have been changed to protect the identity of those involved.
A few months ago a new student came to my class. From the minute she walked in I could tell that she was very intelligent and articulate, a view shared by her parents. On the other hand, within half an hour she was involved in an altercation with one of my students who has behavior issues. At first I wasn’t concerned, because this other student is known for zeroing in on new students and causing problems. However within a few days it was clear that the new girl had difficulty getting along with a wide variety of students. For the next month I struggled to find a way for her to participate in group activities without problems. I eventually ran out of options and then spent most of my time during group activities monitoring whatever group she was in to try to teach some group work skills.
All of this is part of teaching. It would have been manageable, and this student (I’ll call her X) might even have made some progress in learning how to get along, if only the parents had supported my efforts to help their child. Instead, the constant message this child heard (and still hears daily) when recounting her day is, “The students are all bullies, the teacher is unfair, and you, poor thing, are entirely in the right.” Her arrogance and disrespectful attitude have grown steadily since she arrived. When the parents objected to phone calls about problems in the classroom we met with them and agreed to send home a daily behavior report with three goals: Have positive interactions with other students; have positive interactions with adults; focus on learning without talking out of turn. She was scored 3 times each day on a scale of 1 to 3 (with occasional 4s reserved for exceptional accomplishments). Here are a few excerpts from the comments the parents wrote on the form on a day when she scored two 2s and the rest 3s:
- “I am getting sick and tired of X coming home upset and making me upset with what’s going on. You have no right on this planet and life to call X a liar…”She will not be push around by so called “Bullies” and “Teachers”. You need to stop coming up with false accusations about X. I am not playing around with it and I will not take it anymore. One thing you better know, X is not a liar and this matter is going to the DPS administration.”
It is clear from this that the word “liar” is a hot button for these parents, a point we have been very clear on since our first meeting with them. For the record, I have never called this student a liar (I’m not into calling my students names) and have even avoided the use of the word “lie” since that meeting. Here is my first piece of advice for parents who want to keep their daughter from reaching her potential: make sure you are in complete denial about the issues she needs help working on, and then take away the language she needs to use when others are trying to help. X has several times denied doing something that reliable witnesses (including myself) have seen her do. She does sometimes change her story when faced with the evidence. At one point, when she had owned up to something I asked her what words I should use when talking to her about a situation like this. My thinking was that in families where “Shut up,” is considered highly offensive language an alternative (i.e. “Please be quiet.” ) is offered for situations where someone is being too loud or saying mean things. X got a rather desperate look on her face and finally said, “I can’t call it that.” She knew exactly what it was, but she will never be able to ask her parents to help her work on it because it is a taboo subject. This must be having an effect on her self esteem, too, to know that she does something that is so terrible that her parents can’t even utter the word.
My second piece of advice for parents who want to prevent their child’s success it to be sure that your child knows that her problems are always everyone else’s fault, because she is so wonderful that she would clearly succeed if only the rest of the world would get out of her way. That way she will never learn that the only person’s actions she can change are her own. She will spend her life achieving far below her potential, unhappy and frustrated that the world is against her.
That is a pretty depressing prognosis, but I don’t believe it is inevitable. This student is as capable of learning social skills as she is academic skills. At the moment any attempt to teach her is undermined by her parents’ need to believe she is already the person she is capable of becoming. My hope for her is that a future teacher or mentor will be able to help her learn accountability in spite of the undermining of her parents. Because she is so intelligent she may at some point realize that her current patterns aren’t working and be motivated to look at her life in a new way. Once she starts on that path there will be no limits to what she can accomplish.