The Short Stick

Jen Schmohl was Luke’s science teacher in middle school, not once, but twice. I often wondered what she had done in a previous life lol to deserve this, but it’s just the way it turned out. Jen had Luke at the height of his challenging behavior and for this she should have been paid a million dollars. Turns out she and I had something in common back in 2009: a desire to give directions and run a tight ship and a young man who didn’t want to be told what to do. It also turns out we were probably Number One and Two on his list of Most Annoying People. Sigh.

Jen has been brave enough to reflect and write about Luke as her student. If you thought reading about his running away was hard, buckle up. Jen’s recounting of Luke brought John and I to tears and dredged up all those feelings of agony over his disrespectful actions at school. He was a hard kid, friends. Not every day, not every year, but in 2009… this is what it looked like. My thanks, Jen, for the honesty. Xxx

I was Luke’s 7th grade science teacher. I honestly don’t remember much about him that year which means he was probably being a typical 7th grader.  At that point I had been teaching 7th grade Life Science for about 16 years and had that number pretty down pat, engaging lessons and a strong sense of how to manage a 7th grade class. Life was good!

Unfortunately, the following year I would need to teach 7th grade AND 8th grade because Rutland’s student population was growing so much. This meant I’d need to teach physics and chemistry! Ugh!   I’d never taught Physical Science as a full time teacher and I really didn’t want to change what I had been doing. I even went as far as taking (and passing!) the Biology MTEL so I could be certified to teach high school and get out of teaching physical science, if the opportunity arose. All summer I was dreading the new schedule. I studied up on the subject as much as I could. I felt like a first year teacher all over again, which may be why I can still remember so many of the students from that class.

    A week before school began we got our tentative rosters. I saw some familiar names, like Luke Inwood, some not so familiar names, and some notorious names, if you know what I mean. I was glad to have several students for two years in a row, including Luke. I was hoping they were glad as well.

The jitters faded and I managed to do my job. Physical science was actually really great. There are so many hands-on labs to do; way more than life science. That October I planned for my 8th graders to teach “properties of matter” to a first grade class at a nearby primary school. We had learning stations planned and our science pals were assigned. We were ready to walk to the Primary School and share our lessons on Physical Properties of Matter.  Everyone was excited but I was nervous. How would these 8th graders behave? Would they be good role models? Would they actually teach what we had practiced? My concerns grew as we walked up the road because I had a couple of students who couldn’t “walk on the sidewalk, not on the road.” Even though Luke did oblige to getting off the road he continued to walk far off the sidewalk, the other way, to pick up a wire that had fallen from the telephone pole. It wasn’t live, of course, but who knew at the time? At that point I decided there was no way I was chaperoning the 8th grade trip to Boston that year, even if I was an 8th grade teacher now. I remember thinking, “Luke Inwood will walk into traffic!”  

Luke is in the bottom left hand corner working with his buddy.

    Well, something magical happened in that first grade classroom. Luke and all my students were amazing with the little ones. They were so kind and patient. They smiled and laughed and hugged their science pals. They also did a fantastic job teaching their topics. Our walk back was light hearted and we were all proud of ourselves and of each other. (And everyone walked on the sidewalk!)

    I think it was about February when my 8th graders started getting senioritis and began challenging me. There was nothing I could do to keep them all engaged. I recall making ice cream with them and they complained that it was just vanilla! I resorted to assigning chapter sections to groups and they had to design lessons to teach each other. Ha! they’d see how hard it is to teach these guys. Joke was on me, they loved it. So now teaching a new subject and a new grade was proving to be the challenge I’d imagined it would be.

Luke was definitely the most challenging of the bunch. If you’re a teacher I’m sure you’ve had students that occupy your thoughts evenings and weekends. You find yourself talking to yourself, rehearsing what you really want to say and what you really should say. You think of that student while you read articles about how to manage difficult classrooms and challenging students and then you eventually remember all the others and try to make them a priority too.

The worst day of my teaching career happened when Luke turned his angst towards a classmate. Luke was slowly pushing his table into the back of a girl’s chair. I told him to stop. He didn’t. She was trying to scooch her chair forward but she was getting squished up against her desk. I told him to stop again. He didn’t.  I don’t know what I said exactly but, it was like an out of body experience. I was shaking after. I held back the tears. It was one thing to antagonize me, but it’s definitely not alright to make one of my students feel uncomfortable.

As the year went on Luke would push my buttons so much that my administration suggested that I tell him to go to the office whenever he was not cooperating. When he refused to leave, I’d call the office and ask someone to come and get him.

I can’t recall perfectly about my communication with Patty but I recall emailing her often. One time she said she needed to stop getting my emails. They were never good news and they didn’t seem to be helping anyone. She was right. It was not helping my relationship with Luke at all.  At one point Patty suggested the three of us meet face to face to talk. We met in the library, in a sunny window and comfy chairs in an attempt to keep everyone relaxed. I told Patty and Luke that I felt like I’d tried everything. I tried tough love, kid gloves, joking, giving him leadership jobs and ignoring him but nothing seemed to work. Patty said she was surprised to hear about his uncooperative nature because he did everything they asked him to do at home. She wasn’t joking either. He would take out the trash when they asked, for example. He wasn’t having any problems with his other teachers either. So I left there feeling like the worst teacher in the world.

That’s also how I felt when I received a note from Luke the next year. His 9th grade science teacher had her students write to their 8th grade science teachers telling them what they really remember well from their classes. Luke’s letter said, “I didn’t learn anything in 8th grade cuz me and Schmohl didn’t get along.”

Four years later Luke would be gone. I felt so horrible that I couldn’t bring myself to attend the Calling Hours. I felt I didn’t deserve to go because I let him and Patty down. On a card to the Inwoods from the CTMS teachers, I simply wrote, “I’m sorry for everything.”

I thank you, Patty, for writing your blogs with such honesty for the sake of helping other parents. They’ve helped me as well. I didn’t know until I read your blogs that Luke had difficulty in high school classes and with his parents. I always thought it was just with me.

I feel vulnerable writing these memories but I want to help other teachers, parents and children, if I can. I have reflected a lot on my relationships with students since knowing Luke.  I have been better at identifying students whose outward behaviors are signs of hurting inside. I’ve been more frank with parents of these students as well. Thankfully our middle schools have counselors now, which we didn’t have when Luke was in middle school. We also are learning more and more about SEL, social emotional learning.

What I’d like parents to know:  If your child is getting in trouble at school, please don’t instinctively find blame in the teachers. Do not fall into the excuse that your child’s behavior is poor because they are not being challenged or that the teacher doesn’t like them. Accept it as a sign that your child needs explicit counseling on ways to manage their emotions. Middle school is a tough age to get through and it doesn’t matter which middle school they’re in. If your child is having difficulty with authority and boundaries in middle school, don’t ignore the need to have a professional work with your child. I believe completely that depression and other mental health issues can not be managed without professional medical help.

I need you to know
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