Ruben Brosbe, a New York City teacher, has a soft spot for troublemakers.
At a recent event held by Teachable Moments, a live storytelling event for teachers, Brosbe told a story of one of his favorite recent students, and how he incentivized the third-grade troublemaker to pay attention in math. Held at a bar called Harlem Nights, the event marked the end of the school year and invited teachers to share their stories of the “Best (Blank) Ever.” (Brosbe is also a former Chalkbeat contributor).
Below, you can read Brosbe’s story on the Best Incentive Ever.
This story has been condensed and lightly edited.
A kind of open secret among teachers is that we do have favorites. We’re not supposed to have favorites, we’re not supposed to have teachers’ pets — we try our best not to have them and treat everyone fairly — but we do have favorites. And there’s always someone who, no matter what, no matter how fair you are, you love that kid.
And this is a story about a kid, we’re going to call him Chris, for anonymity. And you know, for me, the favorite in my classroom is always the troublemaker. I don’t think that makes me unusual. I think for a lot of us that’s true. I don’t know if that’s because I’m not a good enough teacher and they demand my attention and so I give it to them. Or I don’t know if it’s my pride, I want to be the one teacher who breaks through and saves him. Or it might just be that I was a pretty good kid, I followed most of the rules, I didn’t get in that much trouble, so I might just envy him. You troublemaker! You go! You break all the rules. I love you, you shiny diamond.
For whatever reason, I love the troublemakers. And Chris last year, my seventh year teaching third grade, he was my favorite.
Third grade is funny because developmentally, physically, they’re not quite broken out of being babies. So Chris was this round, baby-fat adorable Dominican kid.
We were having this conversation last year about the Oscars and how they were super white, and he just does this impersonation: “Oh yeah, I’m a white Hollywood executive, I’m only going to make movies about white people.” And I’m cracking up, because one, he was right, and two, it was hilarious. And OK, you’re a third-grader but you’re also 40 years old.
But he was a troublemaker and had a hard time. Because he knew he was funny and he loved being funny, he loved getting attention. Raising his hand, which is a very important thing in third grade, was not his thing. Every time a thought was in his head, he would share it. He was also very moody. He would get into fights on the playground and when he was in other classrooms.
And math was his least favorite, it was his struggle. I remember one time it just became such a struggle he broke down, he wanted to run out of the room. I tried to stand in front of the door to block him and he ran into me, cursing at me. He didn’t run past me but just broke down into tears.
This is a kid who school is not easy for, and I did my best to figure out what was going on with Chris. I talked to him and sometimes he would just be very closed, he wouldn’t let me know what was going on at all. But at other times I felt that he had low self-esteem. He would say things like “I hate myself,” “I’m so stupid,” “I wish I wasn’t even here,” and those kinds of things that break your heart as a teacher, no matter what age you’re working with, especially 8- or 9-year-old kids.
But he was my favorite, so I worked with him. We had lunch together and I figured out what mattered to him. And he showed a lot of progress that year. He tried a lot in math even though it wasn’t his favorite, and he raised his hand when he wanted to share something and followed along with his classmates.
But June comes around, and things start to slide back. It’s the end of the year, and that’s kind of the time things are hardest. For whatever reason, maybe kids are worried about the summer, maybe they’re just ready for school to be over, maybe they’ve been ready for school to be over for a long time. And Chris forgets to raise his hand. He’s given up on the idea of raising his hand. Homework is also a done concept. There is lots of arguing, arguing with me, arguing with his classmates, and I’m just like, “Chris, we’ve come down on this long journey. Let’s not end it like this.” So I think, “What can I do to help Chris care?”
I know that person’s brain. I know they love being the center of attention. I say to Chris, “If you can make it through the day without interrupting me or arguing with me, I’ll give you one minute of stand-up in front of the whole class.” And it’s hard. He tries, he asks me, “Did I get it?” And I have to tell him, during math, you said, “No, I don’t want to do this,” so not today. But eventually, he gets it. He earns the one minute of stand-up time.
And so kids are packed up, it’s time for closing circle. I get out my phone and time it for one minute. He gets in front of the class and the kids, they’ve all been waiting for this moment, too.
He’s hilarious. He’s the Chris Rock of third grade. They’ve been waiting for this moment, and he gets up in front and they’ve made signs, like “Go, Chris.” He gets up, he is commanding the space with his mannerisms. But once he’s there, the comedy is very physical, this funny dance thing. And the kids are cracking up, they have tears streaming, and I’m cracking up.
It’s not my sense of humor, it’s just not for me, but it’s hilarious. To see the class laughing at him, to see him getting a laugh in.
I’m at a new school now and I miss him. Dealing with him taught me a valuable lesson, a lesson I’ve had to learn again and again: At the end of the day, everything that we want to accomplish as teachers is built on our relationships. It’s built on me saying to you, “I see you,” “I care about you,” “I care about what you care about and I’m going to make that a part of our class.”
I’m grateful to him for that, and I’m going to probably have to relearn that lesson a few more times. But the best incentive I’ve come up with is that one.
Ruben Brosbe is a teacher at P.S. 194 The Countee Cullen School in Harlem, where he will teach fifth grade next year.