Teaching Moment: You Suck

In my student teaching, I had two 6th grade brass classes. The first class met just before lunch, and it contained an even split of girls and boys. This particular class was one of my best sixth grade classes: very skilled, and very dedicated. They were always ahead of the other classes, and were eager to learn new concepts and new songs. My cooperating teacher and I treated them with more challenging repertoire, and they soaked it up like little brass playing sponges.

The other class, however, was a nightmare. They met at the last hour of the day, and they consisted of a rowdy bunch of boys (along with two very tiny, very quiet girls) that I struggled to keep in their seats, let alone playing their instruments. Coincidentally, or maybe not so coincidentally, this class was primarily low-performing African-American and Hispanic boys.

One day, I pulled the trumpet section into the cafeteria for scale testing. Throughout the testing process, I had various students that slipped away to goof around on the stage, run around for no apparent reason, and verbal interruptions galore – all in all, a typical day. The first student who played was my wonderful little outlier, an Asian-American boy who practiced regularly, nailed everything on the first try, and did not provide an ounce of distraction in class – ever. The second was my tiny Asian-American girl who often turned red whenever she played in the upper register. (She is a championship diver, by the way – from what I have heard, she might be at the level of attending the Olympics when she is older.) The third student was an African-American boy who was quiet and respectful unless provoked by his peers. He struggled through his scale, missed partials, and I asked him to repeat it. He got the right partials the second time around, and I congratulated him: there was definite improvement from last week.

The fourth student, I had to retrieve from the back of the stage. He spent more time evading his trumpet than he ever did playing it. He was my class clown, and a constant culprit of bad classroom behavior. It became evident as he started playing that he did not know his fingerings, and he stopped the moment the scale got difficult. He dropped the horn from his face, and he yelled “Ms. Harris, what’s the point of even trying?! We suck! Everyone tells us we suck!” This is followed by a chorus of the other boys yelling, “Yeah!” 

And suddenly, I was so angry. Not at this boy who refused to play his trumpet, or at the outburst of his peers, but at every single person that had ever told these kids that they suck, that they are not good enough, and “what’s the point in trying?” This was not about the trumpet, or even about band. My rowdy class of African-American and Hispanic boys had a history of being told that they suck, and they have heard that message for so long that they believe it to be the truth.

I break out the low, borderline deadly teacher voice.

“You do not suck. Don’t feed me that crap for even an instant. Every single person in this room is capable of playing this material, and I don’t ever want to hear that come out of any of your mouths again. I will not tolerate you not trying.” The room was, for once, absolutely still and silent. “You hear me?” My group of rowdy boys (and super tiny championship diver girl) nodded meekly.

“Now, let’s start again.”

I was astounded by the improvement in behavior and effort the next few weeks. It was not perfect by any means, but I felt a newfound sense of respect coming from those students, and I had developed a very new sense of respect for them. 

I know it seems like I draw a lot of attention to the race of my students, but I feel like it is an important factor. Minority students underperform in our classrooms, and there is no denying it. But why? Well, I would hazard a guess that a huge part is this assumption that little African-American and Hispanic boys suck and they’re not good enough and what’s the point in trying.

Instead of letting them struggle through the system and putting up with subpar work because that is what we expect from them, maybe we should be pushing them to succeed. Maybe we should be filling our classrooms with posters of role models that aren’t basketball or baseball players. Maybe we should be address the fact that they are acting out to save face with their friends. I have pulled one of my most behaviorally challenging culprits and had completely reasonable conversations with him where he was willing to admit that he needed help with his schoolwork, something that would have been blown off with a stupid joke in front of his peers. A disproportionate number of African-American and Hispanic boys are diagnosed with learning disabilities. A disproportionate number of African-American and Hispanic boys drop out of school and end up in our prison systems. Is that because it’s easier to slap a label on them than encouraging them to succeed?

I am a new teacher. I do not claim to be an expert. I do not claim to know all the answers. But what I do know that kids respond to respect, and respect is a two-way street.

Think on it.


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