Rafe Esquith, the famed teacher extraordinaire, is one of my greatest inspirations and an occasional mentor. Rafe once told me about his idea that there are three types of students in any classroom. Student #1 is an absolute joy to teach. They do their work, are an active part of the classroom community, never cause problems… basically everything you’d dream a student would be. Student #3, on the other hand, is always off task, has a difficult time getting along with their classmates, and is constantly in need of attention to help them focus. Student #2 exists in a sort of no-man’s land in between the other two. These students appear at first glance to get along well with their peers, to understand the work, and to have all the attention they need. But Rafe explained to me that student #2 is the kid who too often slips through the cracks in education. They are the ones who feel unnoticed and unloved, and they often end up being undereducated. Of course no educator wants that, but what can we do when all of our time and attention seems to be used up by students #1 and #3?
In my new book, Teach Your Class Off: The Real Rap Guide to Teaching, I tell a story about such a student. A kid we call Business Casual.
Business Casual is a skinny little dude. He is curiously happy for a high school kid, a bundle of smiles and energy. He always says hi to everyone and tries to insert himself into conversations in constant attempts to connect and be part of a group. He can be too much for some people because he’s still figuring out when enough is enough. His inability to chill has caused him trouble at times, getting him yelled at or punched in the eye, but he’s my favorite type of student because he is unapologetically himself. I met Business Casual his freshman year when he would visit the school store my students and I made to help us raise money for our first trip abroad. He caught my eye immediately because of the way he was dressed: He had to go to wrestling practice, but he didn’t have wrestling shoes. (This is a common issue for our students. When money is tight––and it often is––they simply have to manage without certain things they need until we can figure out how to get it for them.) So instead of wearing socks or sneakers, my man wore sweatpants and a T-shirt with his dress shoes. This is how he got his nickname: sweatpants + dress shoes = Business Casual.
One day during one of our three lunch periods, I was walking the hallways and saw that Business Casual was just meandering around. I asked him what he was up to and why he wasn’t in class. He told me he had lunch that period but he didn’t like sitting in the lunchroom. I let him know that he was more than welcome to come and eat lunch in my room with the rest of the guys, and he was a little stunned. I learned that Business Casual had trouble making friends and often felt lonely at school. Like a lot of his peers, Business Casual came from a surrounding neighborhood school, and when middle school was finished, he was sent by his grandmother to our school. A lot of parents and grandparents send their kids to our school because it’s a safe alternative to some of the neighborhood schools in Philadelphia. This meant that Business Casual, like other kids in his situation, started the year isolated from everyone he knew. In fact, Business Casual reminded me a lot of myself when I was in high school. Starting off at a new school without any of your old friends and not having a place to belong is tough.
That afternoon, Business Casual came to my room, and he never left. Not only did he join us for lunch, but he also began coming into my room in the morning to say hi and see how my evening was and then staying after school so late sometimes that I would have to make him leave so I could go home. In my room, he made friends. Guys like Ham, David, and DJ Dirty Kev allowed Business Casual to be himself. They are a group within the group. They are, as ex-Navy SEAL and ultra-marathon runner David Goggins would say, “uncommon amongst uncommon men.” They laugh and smile and talk about whatever they’re interested in without ever trying to be cool. They do weird things like play “ping-pong” by placing blue painter’s tape in the middle of a long table in the back of my room and hitting a stress ball back and forth with their hands. They have a “podcast” that’s really just them standing around my plastic microphone-shaped bubble wand and talking about music, video games, and celebrities. It’s the kind of thing that makes other faculty members stop in their tracks when they come into my room and wonder what in the world is going on.
That moment in the hallway with Business Casual is profound to me because it shows clearly that life-changing moments for students and teachers don’t have to be overly dramatic or done out loud. Sometimes the biggest shifts in students’ lives happen in quiet hallways and during lunch. We must pay just as much attention to our interactions with students in those in-between times as we do during class. In moments when you see your students carrying heartbreak, loss, or even just a bit of loneliness, remember that your attention is more important than your advice. All I did was ask Business Casual how he was and then offered him a safe space for the students to form their own bonds. It’s important to remember that all students––#1s, #2s, and even those difficult #3s––long for connection. My job is not to save or fix anyone. I simply create a safe and welcoming place for my students, and provide the time and emotional space that they need to build connections with each other.
Sometimes Student #2 is the hardest one for us to focus on because #1 and #3 are constantly in our sights. But all students need and yearn to be seen, and I believe the greatest thing we can do in life is to find someone who feels invisible and to show them that we truly see them. Those are the moments that change lives.
CJ Reynolds teaches high school literature and The History of Hip-Hop in West Philadelphia. He is the author Teach Your Class Off: The Real Rap Guide to Teaching. CJ is also the creator of the YouTube channel, Real Rap with Reynolds.
Reynolds book and YouTube channel aimed at giving viewers an authentic glimpse into what it looks like to teach high school in the inner city while at the same time helping new and veteran teachers be the teacher they always wanted to be. As an educator CJ’s bare bones teaching philosophy is simple, in the classroom “relationships are king” and the job of a teacher is “always only ever about the students.”