How A Sloppy Joe Changed the Way I Teach

teacher_student_laughingPhoto by Dept of Ed (2004 CC BY 2.0)

[True story told to me by a local teacher. All identifying information changed.]

It was Wednesday morning and Ashanti was sleeping at her desk again. I was so fed up!

These students don’t care about academics any more, I thought to myself. They’re up all night playing video games and then they snooze all day in school.

The last time I caught Ashanti napping, just that Monday, I rapped my knuckles on her desk like I often do. She jumped right awake.

“Are you ready to grace us with your presence” I said to her.

I really don’t like when students sleep in class. It’s so disrespectful.

The other students began to kind of snicker and laugh. I tell you – that girl went from sleeping to spitting mad in seconds.

She started hollering at them and calling them names. I told her in a loud voice several times she needed to quiet down. She just kept on going. Once she starts it’s hard to stop her. At that point I had no choice but to send her to the referral room.

And as she was leaving, she was shouting: “I don’t care! I hate this stupid class anyway!”

I was thinking “In my day, we never talked to an adult like that!”

When she came back the next day (Tuesday) – she didn’t seem remorseful at all. Kind of sullen, I’d say. She also didn’t finish the assignment I gave her. She was really falling behind.

I just felt weary to the bone. This is not what I had signed up to do.

And then, that Wednesday, as she was nodding off AGAIN, I paused to collect myself.

And then something shifted inside me. It’s like I got CURIOUS.

What if it wasn’t just apathy?

What if something else was going on?

I remembered how in one of your workshops you talked about “breaking bread” and how having lunch with kids helped other teachers.

The faculty actually fought hard through the Union to get a “duty-free” lunch. But it felt different because it was voluntary.

That day, I let Ashanti nap until the the bell rang. Then I came over and said:

“Ashanti, I know things have not been great between us lately. I’m wondering if you would be willing to bring your lunch to my classroom today so we can eat together.
No lectures. Just food.”

She looked surprised and a little suspicious, but after giving it a moment, she just nodded her head. I wasn’t sure if she’d even show up.

When she shuffled in with her tray that afternoon, I started off by expressing concern. I said:

“I’ve noticed you’ve been kind of tired lately. I’m a bit worried about you. Anything going on?”

At first, her face was all closed up. She was moving her sloppy joe meat back and forth on her tray with her fork.

Photo by Amanda Wong (2010 CC BY 2.0)

Then, she smiled kind of shyly and said “My mom’s getting out of the hospital this week.”

For the rest of that lunch period, I learned all about her mom’s illness and how it affected Ashanti for a long time. I learned why her homework was often half-done, why she was often late for class in the morning, and how that week, Ashanti, her younger siblings, and her Uncle Jim had stayed up late every night installing a special mechanical bed, cleaning, and getting the house ready for the big day of her mom’s return.

That sloppy-joe lunch was a turning point for how I approached my students from then on.

Ashanti and I haven’t had conflict since that, and we figured out a way to help her get caught up. I stopped being so angry and tired. I became CURIOUS.

I started asking more open questions. I gave myself permission to take class time for collaborative activities and to talk about things that mattered to the kids. I thought it would take valuable time away from learning, but I think we are all learning better now.

Of course Ashanti is not a perfect student and I do not have a perfect classroom. But it is so much better.

I feel like I am doing what I love again: teaching kids who want to learn.


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Next week on the Conflict 180 blog I share three restorative practices that have dramatically shifted one’s school’s discipline numbers.

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