Gypsy’s Mark: Connecting with a Difficult Student (Donna Burns)

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If you’ve been a teacher for any time at all, you’ve experienced students that are especially difficult. My greatest challenge came during my third year of teaching.

Tommy was a “Jekyll and Hyde” sort of eighth-grader. He could be the sweetest kid in class one moment and a terror the next. I always stressed discipline and compliance in my science class, feeling that a combination of horseplay, carelessness and chemicals could get someone seriously hurt in a hurry. Consequently, Tommy and I butted heads regularly. Our relationship was shaky, even on a good day.

It wasn’t because I hadn’t tried to find a way to reach him, to develop a foundation of a positive relationship; I just wasn’t successful. My one and only “in” with Tommy was our squirrel dog, Gypsy.

Tommy, like my husband and me, was an avid hunter and dog owner. I would share stories of Gypsy with the class, and Tommy and I would swap hunting stories during the “better” moments. But, for the most part, I felt that I was just not reaching him.

All of that changed. I was grading papers on the living room floor one cold and rainy evening. Piled around me were stacks of “Need to be graded,” “Graded,” “Still to be recorded,” and “I don’t have a clue what THIS is!” My husband came into the house with Gypsy close on his heels. Before he could wipe her paws, she tore through the kitchen and landed squarely on top of me and the papers.

At the moment, I was more concerned about her getting mud on the carpet, so I paid little attention to the damage she had done to my students’ papers. I just shoved them all into my backpack.

paw printAs I was returning graded and recorded papers to the class the next day, Tommy cleared his seat with a shout:

“Mrs. Burns, Mrs. Burns … LOOK; a Gypsy print!”

Tommy was grinning from ear-to-ear and, sure enough, planted squarely in the center of Tommy’s paper was a perfectly formed, muddy, paw print.

From that moment on things were different between Tommy and me. We still had our days, but the relationship was much, much better.

It’s been over five years now, and Tommy still asks about my husband … and about Gypsy … who is still very much a part of our family. —

 When she shared this story, Donna Burns was a middle school science teacher from Hillsboro, West Virginia.

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