On making the best kid cry

Like many teachers, I have a habit of doing a run down of my favourite children with my close friends and family. At one school, there was one in particular I singled out. Let’s call him Kenneth.

The thing about Kenneth was that he was the hardest working, sweetest, quietest child I had encountered. While a few people in his class tested the boundaries, Kenneth stayed in the corner, always silent, always focused, always following every instruction. His face was often quizzical, but when he smiled it was one of the sweetest things I had ever seen.

Then, a few weeks into teaching the class, I was sharing feedback from looking at their books. I talked through the pupils who had earned merits. Then I named two students whose work had been disappointing. One was Kenneth. I didn’t immediately notice, but it soon became clear that Kenneth was, very quietly and very gently, sobbing.

Now, it had not slipped my notice that Kenneth was often hesitant to read, and sometimes his voice quavered with nerves when he did. I definitely should have thought of that.

It had slipped my notice that, despite always doing the right thing and despite always focusing and trying his best, Kenneth had not, in the six times I had looked at their books and the fifteen lessons we had had together, got more than one or two merits with me.

And then I had read his name out publicly for needing to improve.

As soon as I heard the muffled cries, I knew I had done the wrong thing. I rushed the feedback and as the others silently corrected their work, I made a bee-line for Kenneth. He was wiping his face.

‘Are you ok?’

‘I’m fine,’ he said, putting on a brave smile.

‘I’m really sorry. I really didn’t mean to upset you.’

‘I know,’ he nodded, barely able to hold the tears back.

As the lesson went on, the sobs dried up, and Kenneth was his usual quiet and focused self. At the end of the lesson, I asked him to wait behind so I could give him a fuller apology.

‘I’m so sorry I read your name out, Kenneth. Was that what upset you?’ I asked. The tears immediately started. ‘I really am so sorry, Kenneth. I think you’re completely brilliant – the way you focus and the effort you put in every lesson is just amazing! It’s just this tiny thing you need to improve. But I’ll definitely never say it in front of the class again.’ He nodded, smiling painedly. ‘I’m so sorry Kenneth. Can you accept my apology?’ He nodded, again.

Kenneth’s tears were the starkest reminder to me that we have a duty to know our children. I didn’t know how sensitive Kenneth was. I didn’t know, also, how much I had neglected to praise him for all the good things he was doing in lessons. Kids like Kenneth are too easy to ignore.

I won’t do it again. I’ll single kids like Kenneth out when they do something good, and I’ll have a quiet word when I need to. I’ll work as hard as I am able to to make sure our school is as good as it can be for kids like Kenneth. When I think about why I come to work every day, it’s him I think of. I have to be a better teacher for him. I have to be a better leader for him.


2 thoughts on “On making the best kid cry

  1. I’ve reflected before I replied to this post because, as you know, I do adore you! However, I am troubled by the implications of this post.

    Teachers like parents have favourites (hard not to) but in the end the system one sets up in class has to be immune to this in my experience. There has to be equality among the children if equality of opportunity is to occur.

    No child is perfect, if their work was not up to scratch then it wasn’t and there will be times in Kenneth’s life when this will happen. This does not make him bad, it’s just a fact of life that he can’t be perfect. His reaction to it is irrelevant in my opinion except in knowing how to help him to deal with similar situations in future.

    Are you protecting/shielding him from an injustice – in which case why was the injustice not equally true for the other child whose work you pointed out?

    By shifting the class culture around Kenneth, is this any different to those teachers who shift the class culture around the child who misbehaves the most? Is it justified in either direction from a moral stance where all children are meant to be treated as equals?

    In the long run, is Kenneth believing he is “good” no matter what and the world will shift around him to prove it helpful to him or to the society in which he exists? Is this not elevating feelings above right/wrong which is precisely the problem that we have with some young people today?

    Even for a child like Kenneth some short term pain might save him some greater long term one.

    I remember having to speak to the parents of two of the best behaved children I had in a class. The previous three years of a chaotic class environment with multiple teachers meant that they had become accustomed to copying each others work as they were never given attention. The whole group was doing it but the others stopped after a quiet word but these two didn’t. I’ve never felt worse doing what I did but I had to in order to get them to work independently so I could assess their individual strenghs and weaknesses. It was painful all round but they both did start doing the right thing because they understood then that I was serious about it.

    Ultmately you know your class and children better than anyone but no person can be saved from emotional pain in their lives and to do so seems to have the opposite effect than what is believed anyway.


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