Giving ‘Trouble’ a Second Chance

Many times in my career, I have heard a colleague warn, “Watch out for that one! He’s trouble!”

Students quickly gain a reputation with the teachers. In an effort to help each other, teachers may offer a warning about a challenging student. I’ve learned not to believe everything I’m told.

Sometimes students have arrived in my high school or middle school art classes with a bad reputation. While it was tempting to see them in the worst light, sometimes my struggle to maintain an open mind was richly rewarded. Such was the case with Denny and Emir.

Everyone in school, including Denny himself, “knew” he was a total mess-up. It was a small community. Everyone knew everyone else. Denny’s family wasn’t well off. He and his brothers had a reputation as wild boys. None did well in school.

Denny came to my art class after another teacher banished him for horseplay. He reluctantly joined us as we used colors in abstract designs to express emotion. To his obvious astonishment, his painting was one of the most successful. He decided to give art a real try.

I can’t say we didn’t have rough days. Part of Denny’s problem was impulse control, exacerbated by his own low opinion of himself. When he had a bad day, during lunch he would sometimes “hide out” in the art room. Here, he knew he would be welcomed and accepted.

He wasn’t a gifted artist, but he did everything with enthusiasm. I got a kick out of his subversive sense of humor, which shocked him. Denny took an art class every year for the rest of high school. And he graduated—the first in his family to do so. He was even vice president of art club his senior year.

Another student, Emir had also been labeled a troublemaker before he enrolled in my computer graphics class. He turned out to be very intelligent. He loved the self-paced nature of my class. It meant he wasn’t held back by others’ slower progress. Once he had appropriate challenges, he dived into the curriculum and excelled—and there were no discipline problems at all.

On behalf of Denny, Emir and countless others like them, I want every educator to take another look at the troublemakers in their classes. Kids don’t make trouble “for no reason,” no matter how much it may seem so. Granted, we can’t reach them all. I have failed spectacularly in some cases, as have all caring teachers. But sometimes it really pays to keep an open mind about our troublemakers, and give them another chance.

Gephardt teaches private art classes in Kansas.