True, But Useless

A rather cold phrase to describe an important part of working with at-risk kids. If I were to sit down with any kids who has checked out of school, who is starting down the path to dropping out, I will find out many things that will wrench my heart apart. I will learn about poverty, neglectful parents, indifferent teachers, possibly some drugs and physical abuse. Not all at-risk kids have such stories to tell, some just find a mismatch between what they want in life and what school has to offer. Many, however, will tell me these stories, and most, for me at least, are true, but useless (TBU).

I’m going to summarize a story told in Switch, a book by Dan and Chip Heath. They tell the story of “Bobby,” a troubled teen who terrorizes his teachers and threatening to other students. When Bobby went to a counselor, he told about a life in and out of different foster homes and a strained relationship with his father. Bobby was one of maybe 50 or more kids the counselor was working with on a weekly basis. As the Heath Brothers put it, “He [the counselor] didn’t dig into Bobby’s trouble childhood, and he didn’t try to excavate the sources of his anger and willfulness. For [the counselor], all that information would have been TBU.”

The counselor instead focuses on the parts of the day that Bobby liked, the teacher he got along with, and found specific things that that teacher did which worked for Bobby. He shared that with the rest of the teaching team. Together, the teachers implemented what worked, and all saw improvement. Once again, as the Heath Brothers make certain to tell us, “Bobby is not a model student. But he’s a lot better.”

The purpose of this story is not to say how great that one teacher was who connected with Bobby, but how the team used that “Bright Spot” in Bobby’s life and tried to replicate it throughout the day.

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