Be Relentlessly Present

I have a quick story. Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Today, one of our paraprofessionals brought Tim to my office. Tim was refusing to do his work. The young man stated that he had already completed the assignment and that he wasn’t going to do it again. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: “So, did you ever turn the assignment into your teacher?”

Tim: “No. I threw it away. It’s long gone.” He emphasized the word “long.”

Me: “Why would you do that? How do we know if it was completed, or if you understood the material?”

Tim: Fidgeting with a gadget that looked like a slinky (I still don’t know what it was) Tim shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know why. I just did.”

Me: “So what do you want out of this situation?”

Tim: “I want to go home.”

Me: “Well, we can’t do that, so let’s talk about our options.”

We proceeded to have a five-minute discussion in which each option I laid out for Tim was met with one of two responses: “I want to go home,” or “I ain’t doing that assignment again.”

My palms began to sweat. I was fighting a losing battle. The student had dug in and was daring me to rise to the occasion with some weak attempt to coerce him into doing the assignment. Regrettably, I’ve been down this road enough times to know how this would end.

I desperately searched the recesses of my mind for a mutually acceptable solution. Then I remembered the student’s teacher. A teacher who has unbelievably high expectations for her students, but also provides an extremely high level of support — and the kids know it.

I changed my tact.

Me: “Is this assignment just going to go away?”

Tim: “If I wait long enough.”

Me: Feigned shock on my face, “Really? I know Ms. Jones. You know Ms. Jones. Is Ms. Jones going to let you off the hook, or is she going to expect this assignment to be completed?”

Tim: “Maybe if I wait until the end of the semester.”

I could sense insecurity in his response. His resolve was weakening. I paused to let him give the situation more thought.

Me: “So let me get this straight. Do you really think Ms. Jones will eventually just forget about this assignment and give you a free pass? The same Ms. Jones you and I know?”

Tim: “No. She won’t forget.” He said this with a sheepish smile and eyes focused intently on the floor.

Me: “Great. Then we agree you might as well get the assignment done. Would you like to finish it in the classroom, or work on it in the media center?”

Student: “I’ll finish it in the media center.”

Me: “Awesome! Thank you.”

Tim left my office with his assignment and a smile.

Successfully getting Tim to work on his assignment had absolutely nothing to do with me. There was nothing I was going to be able to do to convince him that he should do the work. Threats weren’t going to work. A consequence wasn’t going to work. Even a suggestion that he might have to miss his afternoon athletic competition was batted away with a roll of the eyes.

However, Tim knew Ms. Jones to be relentlessly present — the type of teacher who is with her students through thick and thin. If you don’t meet expectations, you can expect to hear about it. Misbehave and suffer the natural consequences. Fail to try, goof around, or don’t take your learning serious and expect to get called out. But, it’s all done out of love and concern for student success. Ms. Jones is the type of teacher who will “go to battle” for her kids. She cares. She is consistent. She is faithfully present — through the good and the less than stellar. Her kids recognize that she cares about them as students and as people.

And Tim knew it. So he chose to do his assignment.

When it comes to getting students to give a rip — to put in the effort — being a person of presence is cash money.

Caring about kids enough to have high expectations and backing them up with overwhelming support. That is the currency of the effective educator.

Many of our students desperately need a stable adult in their lives. They don’t need “mean.” They don’t need pity. They don’t need low expectations. They need the purposeful presence of an adult. Someone who will push them when they need it and dole out a steady supply of support, encouragement, and empathy.

As educators, let’s choose to be relentlessly present.