“Those kids”

Something one of the students in my Introduction to Education class said has really upset me.  We were preparing to take over a class at Fruitvale Elementary, here in Oakland, CA, for the day.  My students were volunteering for a great organization called Junior Achievement, teaching kids about business and economics.  My sophomores were teamed into groups of two or three and assigned to a class ranging from kindergarten to fifth grade.  It was a great day!  My students were great!  The elementary kids were great and challenging, the perfect combination for aspiring teachers.

The reason why I am so angry is because one student refused to go on our field trip. He had been assigned to the team that is working in a special-needs class for kindergarten through third grade. He told me that he didn’t want to teach “those kids.”

“Those kids.”

“Those kids.”

Can you imagine if teachers were allowed to refuse teaching assignments because they didn’t want to teach “those kids”?  Now, I understand that with special education, teachers need a specialized degree and credential, so adults who do not want to work with special-needs kids can avoid that assignment by not getting the degree.  However, there are other kinds of “those kids” in our public schools.

There are “those kids” who live in violent and impoverished neighborhoods. They don’t have school supplies or a quiet place to do homework. They might do a wonderful job each day in class, but never turn in homework or long-term projects.

There are “those kids” who live in these same neighborhoods and who don’t believe that they will lead lives that are any more successful than their parents’ or their neighbors’. They don’t believe that a good education is a path to a better life, so they don’t bother applying themselves to their classes.  Instead, they attend school to socialize with their friends.

There are “those kids” who have very low academic skills.  They have been labeled as “failures” year after year. Some of “those kids” have given up trying, because they believe that trying will only lead to more failure. They protect their egos with disruptive and disrespectful behavior.  For “those kids” it is better to get an “F” because the teacher “doesn’t like me” than because they aren’t “smart enough.”

What my student didn’t seem to realize is this: In the eyes of some people, he is one of “those kids.”  He is a kid who is habitually late to class.  He is a kid who would rather listen to his iPod than the teacher’s instructions. He is a kid who does the bare minimum of work in order to get by.  He is the kid who would rather entertain his classmates in the short run than get a good grade in the long run.

As his teacher, I had a choice I needed to make about this student.  On the one hand, I could make an effort to build a relationship with him and discover why he struggles in these ways with his schoolwork.  I could try to find out why he seems to place such little value in education and so much value in entertainment.  I could choose to engage with him and try to finds ways that, together, we can try to get him reinvested and successful in school.  On the other hand, I could just write him off as one of “those kids” and focus my attention and effort on the kids who are better behaved and better prepared.  If I choose to write him off as one of “those kids,” then who has really failed: this child or me?

I can’t tell you how many times I have had to engage in a defense of “those kids” who are also my kids.  Whenever someone asks, “Where do you teach?” and hears my reply of “Oakland,” I can see it in their eyes.  It’s a mixture of sympathy and admiration that I would teach “those kids.”  I can see that when I explain that the vast majority of my kids in Oakland are very bright, very hard working, and very serious about their studies, it never quite dispels the stereotype of “those kids.”  It drives me crazy.

So you can imagine my frustration to hear from one of my own kids that he refuses to teach “those kids.”

What do you think?  Do you ever have “Those Kids!” moments?  How do you handle them?

Related categories: