Anyone who's been teaching for more than 45 minutes has been warned about exhibiting favoritism in the classroom. Teachers at every educational level are perpetually on guard, careful not to demonstrate any hint of the fact that we might prefer one of our students over another. Fair enough -- nobody would argue that inequity ever helped a student achieve lasting success.
And yet I believe the focus on favoritism eclipses another equally crucial pedagogical issue. This other subject is a silent enemy, one lurking, unnamed, in the back of every teacher's mind.
The question is this: What can be done when you have The Kid you can't stand?
Let's face it, folks, every once and a while you get a student who drives you up your classroom wall (the nicely decorated wall, the one with a display of fall foliage that The Kid has already wrecked by ripping the corners off the maple leaves and sticking pins in the eyes of the cute squirrel pictures).
Or there's a child who makes you want to scratch your fingernails across the board because any sound would be better than her endless low-grade, even-toned, but nevertheless distinctly audible nasal whining.
Perhaps you have one who makes you dream about using unbridled sarcasm (or worse, relentless, repetitive teasing) in order to drive home that perhaps junior or princess should take a few steps down in the self-esteem department.
Don't get me wrong; I want to be the first one to say that raising and teaching small children has got to be the toughest job in the universe. It's right up there with being a child, which is undisputedly the toughest assignment. Childhood is not for sissies. I remain emotionally moved and intellectually impressed by those possessing the stamina and courage to survive the process.
Having said this, however, I have had students who made my life a living hell. When I was a student teacher (back when the Earth's crust was still cooling), a 7 1/2-year-old held court over the class like Henry VIII -- or, to be more precise, like Richard the Third. When he wasn't exactly screaming, he was grumbling. He was a bully and a smart aleck (ah, the phrases that attach themselves to the experience -- I've haven't used the phrase "smart aleck" in 25 years). He was also intelligent, good-looking, and unlike some kids, perfectly able to control his behavior when he chose.
The first day I ran the class, I was as nervous as the baby gerbil at the back of the room when The Kid approached the cage. He scared me, I realized when I stood up there that I was more worried about what he would do to me than I was about how I would do as an instructor.
Turns out I had good reason for my apprehension. About five minutes into the lesson on composition, The Kid started pulling stuff out of his nose and wiping it on the desktop of the girl sitting next to him. I don't know where exactly he'd acquired the stuff in his nose, but it seemed there was enough of it to fill one of those rent-by-the-month storage spaces.
The girl raised her hand and asked to go to the bathroom. Were I in a position to do so, I would have asked to do the same.
The Kid looked at me, finger in his nostril as if on a trigger. If he'd growled "You feel lucky, punk?" to me, a la Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, I would not have been surprised.
What did I do? After controlling my gag reflex, I asked him to move his seat. He smirked, thinking that this was pretty light in terms of a response. After he rose, I explained that I wanted him to sit at the girl's desk. When he was ready to get into the chair, I further explained to The Kid that I wanted him to sit on the girl's desk (she was still in the bathroom and, I thought, would stay there for several weeks). I wanted The Kid to experience fully the environment he had so carefully prepared for his classmate.
Well, you would have thought he was a vegan being served steak tartar. You would have thought he was being served as steak tartar. His reaction was immediate and his displeasure was registered by everyone in the classroom, including the supervising teacher who muffled her laughter in a behavior far more appropriate and professional than my own.
The kid complained.
What was crazy-making, however, was the fact that this boy had the full support of his parents. He was just "acting out" and I should have celebrated his comfort-level with his bodily excretions. His parents -- and the school administration -- tried to soothe him and his parents by offering palliatives and apologies on my behalf.
My lesson? I decided I needed to learn more patience; I learned that, in acting out myself, I made as much trouble as The Kid. I did to him what he would have done to me. What I saw was that I, too, had the makings of a tiny emotional terrorist. It wasn't pretty.
The Kid developed a huge crush on me after that incident. He behaved well in my presence. Nobody could understand it, least of all me, but he did learn to use a handkerchief and so there was one positive outcome.
Bottom line? We all encounter The Kid at one point or another and we should forgive ourselves for a perfectly human inability to like or appreciate all children equally.
Also, carrying tissues and one of those antiseptic wipes is always a good idea.