‘Tough Kids’ Need Love Too

For twenty years I worked in traditional school settings — “normal” elementary and middle schools. Then it all changed. I was sent to work at our district’s alternative learning center.

I had heard about the ALC. That’s where the “bad” kids were sent. The kids that bullied others. The kids that brought weapons to school. The kids that made bomb threats. You get the picture.

It was NOT the ideal school setting that I was accustomed to.

I thought my first day was going to be my last day. In fact, before lunch, I had already talked to the principal and told him that I would not be back the next day. Instead, I was traveling to Frankfort to turn in my retirement papers.

I wasn’t ready to retire, but I refused to work in such a place with such language, violent backgrounds, and such a wide range of extreme issues. I. Could. Not. Deal.

Our principal asked me to please come back the next day. Just one more day. Surely I could make it just one more day. I agreed, but I requested to filter my students just a little — to make it just a little more manageable for me. He agreed.

I went back, and I’m still there.

I learned something pretty quickly about those “bad” kids. They had been labeled.

Teachers have been watching out for them because they’ve had behavior issues in the past, so they would surely have them each and every year in every classroom, no matter the teacher or the subject matter. For too many people, they were just “bad” kids. No hope or future for them.

At first, I drove to school each day in tears at that thought. With these students, you have no idea what might take place when they walk through the door. Many of them live in dysfunctional families. Many don’t know where their parents are, especially their fathers. Many don’t see a responsible adult on a daily basis outside of school.

Some just made a bad choice and ended up there.

As days turned into weeks and weeks into months, I got to know my students. I mean REALLY know my students. More than ever, I find it impossible to believe in the concept of “bad” kids.

All students are good, we just sometimes have to look a little deeper to find that good that lies within them. Nothing good happens without first developing a strong relationship.

So, that’s where I began with every student that entered my classroom. Academics would come in time, but first we had to establish a relationship.

My students had to know they could trust me, but I also had to know that I could trust them. Remember, some have made some pretty serious threats.

That was hard for me to swallow. I learned that many of these threats came from frustrations that had escalated, from situations where the kid had tried to do the right thing, but no one would listen.

These kids need love more than anything. They need to know that somebody has their back no matter what they say or do. I’ve tried hard to become that somebody to my students over the last two years.

I am so proud of my students. I love them, and they love me. They know that I am in their corner. Yes, I have to give out tough love sometimes, but they know deep down that it’s for their own good and that I’m just trying to make them focus on a better future. I have seen students graduate that would have never had the opportunity if they had not been in my classroom.

In fact, one of my seniors sent me this message right after he graduated.

I tell everybody I’ve never had a relationship with a teacher or anyone like I have you. You’ve had more hope for me and helped me way more than anyone has. There’s no telling where I’d be without you doing what you’ve done for me. You’ve helped me become the person I am now and I’m forever thankful for that.

“Tough” kids need love too. If we can establish a relationship and trust, and see why they are where they are, we have the ability to change their lives. Never, ever give up on kids.


Photo by Raquel Simoes, CC-Licensed.

Kelly Melton is a Hope Street Group Kentucky State Teacher Fellow from Muhlenberg County, KY.

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