A Curmudgeon and a Tattooed Screamer

To motivate the students, it is important to figure out the real meaning for their attitudes. It helps with motivation and with classroom behavior, which are intertwined.
Mr. Lopez* was meaner than a snake. He was probably in his fifties, and he was an old curmudgeon. I could not break through to this man to get him to do any work. He didn’t see the value of studying, and was snotty to me all the time.

Finally, Mr. Lopez ended up leaving school. I can’t remember if I ended up throwing him out because he wasn’t producing, or if he quit. But it taught me a lesson; I thought this man had a really ugly heart and was very mean-spirited. I totally misunderstood his behaviors.

At lunch one day, I was in the chow line, and Mr. Lopez was serving food. He said hello and we chit-chatted for a few seconds. Out of nowhere, Mr. Lopez said, “You know, the reason I hated school and the reason I gave you trouble was because you look like my ex-wife. She’s blonde, she’s short, and her name is Jan. You remind me of her too much.”

We just laughed, and I was like, “Oh, for Pete’s sake, that’s what it was.”

He never came back to school, but it did teach me a lesson; sometimes there is a reason why people act the way they do. And if you can just break through that, you usually have it made.

There was another individual with tattoos over every part of his body. Mr. Thornton was quite intelligent. One day he was sitting in class and asked for a math test. He wanted to see if he was close to being ready for the GED test. I quickly handed him one.

About five minutes later, Mr. Thornton threw the test and yelled, “Don’t you ever give me another fuckin’ test when you know I’m not ready!”

A natural reaction would be to throw him out or to holler back.  But I just stood there, listened, and smiled at him. I knew he hated math, he was very low in it, he was probably afraid of failing, and he was embarrassed.

Mr. Thornton got all stressed out, so we had a visit. I acknowledged his frustration, offering to help him as often as necessary.  I told him stories of the many others who hated math, were frustrated by it, but who eventually passed.  I also stressed that further outbursts by him would not be tolerated.  Months later, after much perseverance, Mr. Thornton passed the whole GED test, including math. He went on to take Purdue classes while still in prison, and became one of my best advocates with new students.

After he passed the test, you would have thought I was supernatural. Mr. Thornton talked to everybody about how they needed to listen to me and how great he thought I was. And he tells the story over and over about what he did in his early class days and how we butted heads a little bit, but that it all worked out in the end.

*All names have been changed in order to protect the privacy of each individual.

Janice M. Chamberlin, a licensed prison educator in Indiana, is the author of Locked Up With Success. In her book, Ms. Chamberlin shares stories not only of the challenges she has faced, but also the triumphs she has seen in the prison classroom setting. She has successfully developed a system that can unlock potential even in the highest risk students. The full paperback or digital version can be purchased at www.lockedupwithsuccess.com.