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Monday November 20th 2017

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The Myth of the After School Conversation

Six Tips on How to Have the Talk

I love it. I love it love it love it when I hear people give their two cents about how we should handle our worst students in our worst public schools.

Whether it is idle chat I overhear at Starbucks, or on a radio talk show, I love it when people say with such surety how these kids should be handled.

And I also hate it.

Either way, they almost always sound exactly like this: “You know, they just need someone to sit them down and talk to them. I mean, like, they’ve probably never had someone say to them, ‘Hey, I believe in you.’ These students just need teachers to show them they care, that there is someone out there who really thinks the world of them. I mean, gosh, it’s so easy, why doesn’t anyone ever do that?”

Right off the bat can I just say how ignorant that is? That’s like telling a computer engineer: “You know what would make your job easier? If you had keyboards attached to all the computers. You know? Then they would really work. Why doesn’t anyone just do that?”

Good God, if I hear another person who has never been in one of our public school classrooms say something like that, I might lose control of my car and end up in the San Francisco Bay one of these days.

We talk to these kids individually, with counselors, with therapists, with their parents, with the police, and with their parole officers. So don’t tell me all I need to do is sit down and have a little chit-chat. Argh!

Of course I hate it on a couple of different levels. The first, and most obvious is the disrespect they show our profession by assuming, with such an air of certainty I might add, that it has never occurred to any teacher or administrator over a decade of a kid’s education to actually sit down and have a heart to heart. I mean, honestly, you think that never occurred to any of us?

And the second reason this makes me so angry is because it is a myth.

Why do we continue to think life works like it does in the movies and on television? Why do we think a well-phrased speech can change someone’s life in an instant? This is real life, and these students are really messed up. You can’t just snap your fingers and solve all their problems during passing period.

That said, I have been in many of those tearful situations after school with a struggling student. I have had them cry in my arms, and I have gotten more than one nice shirt soaked in teenage snot. Sure, these conversations were life changing to a certain extent, and the students will always remember them (at least until the end of the school year), and hopefully they give me an easier time in class afterwards.

But that is not always the case.

What really gets to our struggling students is the daily grind. They can turn things around for a day, sometimes a week. I’ve even seen students go for months on the right track, and I thought I was through having to worry about them. But then the inevitable happens. They relapse. They just couldn’t keep it up five-days-a-week for seven more months. It’s just too difficult, and the days are too long.

Now let’s just remember, we don’t even expect grown adults to change in a day, or even a week. Smokers, drinkers, people who are overweight, we don’t think for a minute they’ll be able to improve their lives overnight. In fact, we don’t expect them to do it at all. So of all the people out there, why do we expect it from kids?

The reality is, you can give them a speech after school that rivals the rhetoric of Marc Antony, but in a day, or a week, or a month, they are going to relapse. That is the truth, as much as I hate to say it.

So does this myth of the after-school talk mean we shouldn’t give it?

Of course not.

Just because one speech won’t turn a kid completely around, doesn’t mean that a dozen of them spread out through the year won’t. The thing is, if done properly, a good speech makes a small crack in their armor, and when that crack stops spreading after a day, or a week, you crack it again. Even if you never completely tear all their armor down, chunks of it can at least fall off, and let in some much needed light.

OK, enough with the metaphors. Here are some tricks I’ve learned to really get into the heads of your urban students while you have them sitting sullenly after their classmates have already left your room.

  1. Never Lecture Them, at least not at first. Chances are if they’re sitting in your class after school, they’ve been there before, and have sat and listened to so many lectures they could probably write it out for you if they weren’t so damn bad at grammar and spelling. Save the lecture until the very end if you must do it. But more important than what you have to say is what they have to say. Try to make them do the talking. Get them to tell you why they are acting up in class. Be relentless, don’t let them remain quiet. Have them explain to you in their own words why it is they cannot sit and read one paragraph without throwing something at another student. Try to get them to do most of the talking — at first.
  2. Be real. Start off the conversation with a question like this. “So you really hate school, don’t you Vanessa? I mean, you don’t hate it, you like, really hate it. Man, it’s like your not even trying to hide it.” Seriously, I’m not joking. Call them out on it. Don’t beat around the bush, just straight up say it. But also be real about what you can do to make it better. “It’s OK that you hate school, I didn’t like high school either. Actually, I hated it too. So what can we do so that you aren’t swearing at me the moment I ask you to do something?”
  3. Swear. I’m not kidding. Drop an F-bomb in there somewhere (as part of the conversation, never at them). Let them know you’re human. Why do we tip-toe around language when we hear exactly the kinds of things they are saying the moment they leave our room? That is how these kids communicate, and if you want to get across to them, you need to speak their language. I know there aren’t a lot of teachers who will give you this kind of advice, but I feel nothing but respect from students when I show them I am part of their world, and not some out-of-touch academic. Drop an F-bomb, and make it look natural, you’ll see them glance up at you and make brief eye contact for the first time. Watch.
  4. Let them know you’re not mad. Students are tired of people being mad at them. Here’s a little secret about the ghetto: Everyone there is angry. They try to hide it by laughing too loudly, and always trying to flash smiles to show everyone they aren’t afraid. But deep down, they are angry — everyone. So our students are surrounded by angry parents, friends, cousins, and teachers. What really catches their attention is when someone’s nice. That’s something new. Tell them, “Look, I’m not mad at you. In fact, I won’t ever be mad at you. I know you’re having a tough time, and I’d like to help. But next time you do that, I’m not going to get mad and start yelling. I’m not going to freak out. I’m just going to send you out, and I might even have to fill out one of those stupid papers and suspend you for a couple days. But just remember, it’s OK, I understand that you have this problem. I’m cool with it, but when it fucks up my classroom, you gotta go.”
  5. Let them know you care. Yes, just like the people in line at Starbucks say, let them know you care about them. Again, don’t beat around the bush. Look them straight in the eye and say, “You know, Vanessa, I believe in you. Really, I do. So if you’re looking for someone to get your back, I will do whatever it takes. Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it.” Let them know you don’t hate them, and you’re not mad at them-you’re on their side. In fact, another great piece of advice is to ask the student what you can do to help them better succeed in class. You’ll be surprised at what they say.
  6. Try to strike some sort of deal. Start with tomorrow. Try to work with the student to come up with some sort of plan for tomorrow’s class. Start simple. Say, “OK, how about this: tomorrow, you walk in the door, I give you a paper and pencil, and you do the warm-up right away. I’ll even remind you at the door. Can we make a deal and start with that? Is that cool?” Then shake their hand. Always end it with a handshake. Use a firm grip and look them in the eye, it is a sign of respect, and a kid like that probably isn’t getting respect from many of the people in his or her life. I guess once a deal is reached, you can give them some sort of lecture, you probably will. But honestly, I advise against it. Let them walk out amazed they didn’t have to sit through some ten-minute rant.

So those are some techniques that work for me, and I really think they could help you too. But let’s keep it real for one second, because that’s what this blog is about. I don’t care if the student ends up curled up in the fetal position in you lap after your little talk, it isn’t going to change too much. They aren’t going to come in tomorrow and start on the path to being a Rhodes Scholar. They might even come into class worse tomorrow than they were today. Who knows?

But what you have done is start a crack in their armor, and they won’t forget it. It might take a dozen more talks to see any real progress. Or you may never talk to them again because they will be suspended and then expelled in the next month. But at least you tried. For some strange reason, it occurred to you to have a heart-to-heart with a struggling student — amazing right?

The point is, you can’t change a kid just by talking to them. You can’t change anyone with just one talk, and anyone who says different hasn’t ever tried it, and is watching too many movies.

But always remember, there are some things you can do to ensure they won’t forget what it was you said — even if it’s for no other reason than you dropped an F-bomb.

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Reader Feedback

3 Responses to “The Myth of the After School Conversation”

  1. LESLIE Q says:

    Hey Matt,

    Just finished reading ALL of your articles. Unbelievable the challenges you face each day as a teacher. Incredible that in just a few short years you have become such an insightful and incredible teacher at such a tough school. Your articles and website make compelling reading and left me with feelings of overwhelming sadness for what these kids and you are going through, but somewhat hopeful that you can make a difference in at least some of their lives. Great job. If I were a teacher at s similar school I would hang on your every word and wait for more.

  2. Mike says:

    Why is it that just because people spend their teen years in high school, they think they’re education experts? Kinda like flying as a passenger on a jet to Hawaii and thinking that makes them pilots?

    Don’t forget the folks that say, “If colleges can have 150 in a classroom, why can’t high school teachers?”

  3. Shoshi says:

    I am so glad I found this website! I applied to work in a ghetto school and am a little concerned about this topic. I worked with incarcerated juvenile delinquents for six years, but I am a sweet (um, I think! opinions vary), old-fashioned church lady from the word Go, so # 3, Swear, is not gonna work for me. I’ll keep reading the other articles (this is my third or fourth; I started with the importance of being a little ghetto) but is there a substitute for swearing? I’m going to have to find a way to make church lady work for me!
    And thank you so much for sharing your expertise!!!

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