I once had a student named Terrel (not his real name) who did everything he could to get under my skin. He threw stuff across the room when I wasn’t looking, interrupted me nearly every time I began to speak, made inappropriate comments out loud in class that I wouldn’t have even muttered in middle school, tortured substitutes on days I was absent, and refused to turn in any of his assignments. He was without a doubt the most difficult student I’ve ever had. Of course, I had many stern talks with him in the hallway, called home to his mother, and sent him out of my room many times.

Nothing worked.

Terrel made me question what kind of teacher I am, and I often wondered why my classroom management was so poor after several years of teaching. But more than that, I wondered why this kid hated me. Why did he hate my class so much that it was his mission to destroy it?

Then something interesting happened. Terrel started showing up to my classroom 30 minutes before school started every day. Some days he would come in with his friends and just sit and talk with them; other times he would show up alone and sit by my desk while I was grading or preparing for the day. At first, he acted the same way that he did during class, and tried to annoy me or disrupt the work I was doing. I made it clear to him that he is always welcome in my room, but that he could not act like that in the morning.

I thought that would urge him to stop coming to my room in the morning and bothering me. But Terrel kept showing up, and it wasn’t long before he started asking me questions about my personal life.

He’d ask me about my kids, what I do for fun, how I could possibly want to be a teacher and deal with kids like him. This opened the door for me to start asking questions. I learned he grew up in a broken home without a father. He told me about trauma that he experienced as a little kid, and hinted at trauma he was experiencing now. It became Terrel’s daily routine to stop my room and continue the conversation.

In class, he still acted like a punk at times, but when I’d address him, he would stop instantly, realizing that he was disrespecting this person who he has such quality time with every morning. As the months went by, his behavior improved more and more. Then he did something he’d never done before: he passed an English class.

I think back to when I thought that Terrel hated me and my class, and that he was expressing his hate through this behavior. But now I realize that he wasn’t hating me, but was actually testing me. He wanted to know if I was going to be like every other man in his life who gave up on him and walked away. And if I’m being completely honest, I really did want to give up. None of the discipline approaches that I was taught in school or used prior to Terrel worked with him.

Instead though, I persisted. I made my room available for Terrel whenever he needed it, and soon we formed a relationship. It was through this relationship that he finally started to mature and respect me and my class. He felt safe to let his guard down. Terrel knew that I would stay invested and cared about him as a person

And once that happened, he started working and learning like he’d never done before.