In every academic year, teachers all across the world encounter different kinds of students. These character types show up annually. Of course, every kid is unique and offers their own special contributions to the class. But it’s simply true that some kids are more memorable than others.
What makes a great student? You probably already know that. But a memorable kid? That’s a whole different story, folks!
We do it for the kids. Some of us are better teacher than others, but everyone is either struggling and looking for the door, or else doubling down trying to get better at the job. That’s because we love our students.
Here are 5 kinds of students we can never forget.
The Comic Relief
You might assume I’m talking about “The Class Clown,” but honestly, that kid is usually kinda annoying. The Class Clown, in my mind, is a kid who is a bit immature and will say anything for a laugh from his buddies.
The Comic Relief kid is different. He’s usually really smart, and can sense when the tension in the room is too thick. He knows exactly how far he can push the teacher before she loses it, and never crosses that line.
The most important distinction between them is that the Comic Relief is not cracking jokes to be liked. He’s cracking jokes because he’s genuinely funny and can’t help but offer up a good zinger once in a while. He does it purely for the joy of comedy, especially in tough moments.
This kid’s sense of humor is downright witty, and he’s usually got a pretty sophisticated handle on sarcasm for his age, whatever it may be. If not sarcastic (or still really young and tender), this type of student is just quirky and funny, with perfect timing.
This Comic Relief kid isn’t usually the best student in the class, but he probably could be if he tried.
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The Cheetah student blows you away with how quickly she grows. She came in at the start of the year in the bottom 25%, and you were probably worried she’d be left behind some day, if not by the end of the year.
But the cheetah kid is a persistent, relentless, nose-to-the-grindstone kind of student. She hangs on to your every word. She’s got every disadvantage, and for the first part of the year, her failed attempts are heartbreaking. You wonder how much more failure she can take before she quits giving every assignment her best. You practically apologize every time you return anything with a grade on it.
And then, one day, she turns in a benchmark test and the results blow you away. She’s in the top 10%. You check the seating chart and the papers of the kids nearby. There’s no chance she cheated based on how her neighbors did, and you feel guilty for wondering. But maybe it was a fluke?
The next day, you pull her to your reading table and take a listen. There’s fluency, suddenly. What sounded disjointed and choppy before suddenly sounds like music. She’s a great reader, practically overnight.
How do the Cheetahs manage this kind of sorcery? A magical combination of grit, determination, and teamwork with the adults around her. It’s unforgettable!
I started my career in Teach For America. I was working at a middle school in Houston. I have a handful of students from that FIRST year of teaching who have made an indelible impression on my heart. Once you’ve cried over not being able to protect a kid, you can’t forget them. I keep these students in my prayers, and I always wonder how their lives will turn out.
There was Miguel, who didn’t utter a single word until December. When I spoke to him, he wouldn’t even look at me. It was days before Christmas break when he started crying. When I brought him into the hallway, he said, “My Dad was murdered in Chicago. This will be my first Christmas without him. We moved here to get away from the gangs, but now I don’t know nobody here.”
There was “Moonshine” (the middle name stated on her enrollment paperwork). She was a 14 year old 7th grader who was absent a ton. I argued with her pretty regularly about missing assignments, until one of the other boys in class started making fun of her for stripping at the trashy club down the street. I wasn’t sure if it was true. The neighborhood was rough, but I couldn’t believe anyone would hire a 14 year old to strip. But she looked OLD for her age. A month later, she was in my classroom after school, crying because she didn’t want to continue having sex with her mom’s drug dealer.
Tearjerker kids like these two are the reason so many of us can’t leave the profession.
If you’re curious about flexible seating (but worried about losing control of your class), check out my post about how my classroom management IMPROVED when I implemented flexible seating! I’ve got practical tips on this post.
Every year, there’s a child who walks into class with a chip on his shoulder. It’s obvious from Day 1 that he doesn’t trust teachers of any kind. Over the course of the year, the Skeptic’s teachers keep working to earn his trust. An encouraging word offered here, a treasure chest reward there, and months go by without much change.
And then one day, usually around February, there’s a break through. Something happens that changes the trajectory of the student/teacher relationship. My Skeptic story is about Abel, a third grader I met in my second year of teaching elementary school.
Abel seemed permanently sad. If you’ve ever met a third grader who never smiles, you’ll know it’s just awful. His ADHD medicine or dosage was not a good fit for him, and I was usually concerned about his mental health. He frequently called himself stupid. I couldn’t even get him to attempt classwork.
One day, Abel stole a heavy duty magnet off of my white board. It wasn’t expensive, and it shouldn’t have been much interest to a kid. It could fit in the palm of a hand. Another little girl ratted him out. I had been missing this set of 6 magnets for about two weeks. They had been slowly disappearing.
Another girl ratted Abel out. He denied it, but he had a pained expression on his face. Abel was not a good liar, and to make matters worse, he felt guilty.
But Abel was a normal 3rd grader, so he couldn’t help but show it off to his friends on the playground later that day. I saw the magnet gleaming in the playground sun as he tucked it back into his pocket. Friends were gathered around him with shocked expressions. It was only a magnet, but of course, that’s not the point.
We had five minutes of recess left. I sat him down on the playground bench, and plopped down next to him, watching the other kids play. I said,
“Abel, I know you took the magnet. I saw you tuck it in your pocket. I forgive you. I have decided not to tell your Grandma this time. But I don’t want this to ever happen again, so we need to talk more about why you did it.”
We had a long conversation about how sometimes great people do bad things, and I assured him that he was NOT going to prison someday. That part was the saddest bit of all. At only 3rd grade, Abel had already envisioned himself going to jail.
That afternoon, Abel seemed like a new kid. He wasn’t just more open with me, the other teachers on our team noticed a difference in his willingness to cooperate, too. I’m not sure Abel had ever been told “I forgive you” before.
That’s how one of my favorite Skeptics of all time turned into a trusting little third grader. He started working hard on his assignments, and he even began making some healthy friendships. Abel still struggled with his mental health, but at least he didn’t seem to hate school anymore.
Some kids are memorable because they have fascinating brains. Wizards are the kinds of students who seem to just absorb information effortlessly, catch onto complicated concepts like it’s nothing, and who shine when critical thinking is required.
These kids do sometimes get bored in school, but they are so driven to learn that they can usually occupy their minds with self-directed learning or a good gifted and talented program. Often, these kids don’t quite blend in with the others. They have a hard time making friends, even though they’re not necessarily arrogant or rude. They simply can’t always relate to their peers. Elementary school wizards don’t even play the same way as their friends.
The Wizard usually has asynchronous development. This means that while they’re crazy advanced in some areas, they’re still either on track or behind in others. A wizard 2nd grader might read on a high school level but still be very attached to a lovey that hides in their backpack. A wizard 1st grader might be adding and subtracting four digit numbers but be extremely uncoordinated, with body movements more like you’d see in a four year old.
The Wizard is a kind of student who’s memorable in the same way that any exceptional person is memorable. It’s not that they’ve earned it, or that the relationship is special in some way. It’s just that when a kid is truly gifted, it’s hard to ignore or forget. Every time they open their mouths, they’re reminding you of how different they are from the norm.
A wizard comes along once every year or two. When you see them in the hallways in subsequent years, you exchange knowing glances with their current teacher. You say it with your eyebrows: “How NUTS is that kid?”
Why Challenging Kids (Often) Become Our Favorite
Some of my favorite and most memorable students were the most challenging. It sounds counter-intuitive, but the tough cases are often the ones I remember fondly. I think that’s because when you pour your heart into a kid, doing everything in your power to get them on the right track, you grow to really love them.
It’s hard in the moment. They’re never your favorite student THAT year. They’re exhausting. They keep you awake at night. They make you feel like you’re failing.
But in the years that follow, there’s a spot in your heart where they used to live. You wonder how they’re doing. You feel like you made a difference, even if it was a small one. Challenging kids need the most love, and when you love someone your very best, you don’t forget them.