The Hardest Student I Never Taught: Have A Day

Before receiving my certification in visual arts, I worked for several years as a special education teacher assistant. Though not claiming to be an expert, I have been educated in, and have handled many behavioral issue situations. However, nothing prepared me for the time I would spend with *Jack* (name has been changed).

Before Jack even entered my class, the red flags were flying. I received several emails informing me that he would be in my class, and that there were people who could support me if needed. One teacher even approached me in the courtyard.

“You have Jack in your class”, she said with a look that I can now only describe as pity. “It will make you a stronger teacher.”

I didn’t think much of these communications. I’d had students of all kinds in my classes and my plan was to proceed as usual.

The first few weeks went off as planned. Jack participated in class and seemed to enjoy art. His work, however, was well below the standard of the rest of the class. This didn’t bother me, but it apparently bothered Jack.

Jack was always willing to start, but he demanded attention at a much higher level than I could afford to offer. In fact, if I attended to all of Jack’s needs, I would have spent 100% of my time with him.

To compensate for the lack of attention, Jack soon added a twist to his projects. Each assignment started fine but would soon end in a destructive manner. There would be water all over the floor, or paint splattered on the wall, or papers glued together. All this was presented with a thinly veiled attempt to disguise the destruction as an accident.

Soon the accidents turned to pranks. The line changed from, “Sorry, that was a accident,” to, “I thought you would think it was funny.” The pranks however, were never funny. Always annoying. Sometime infuriating. I had to find a method of dealing with these behaviors.

When I confronted Jack about his behavior, he retreated to his Special Ed room. This was easy for me, as I could then attend to my class. Other times, when I could no longer deal, I’d send him back myself, not giving him the option.

By December, my class was preparing to work in clay. This was a medium I had no intention of letting Jack be destructive with. I’d go through the usual routine. Give Jack a chance, wait for him to blow it and send him away. But Jack didn’t blow it. When he saw the clay he asked if he could make Christmas ornaments. He spent the entire class time working and even stayed during lunch to finish.

Jack asked everyday if the ornaments were done. I was firing three classes worth of clay projects, so it took a week or so before his pieces were fired. Unfortunately, several of his ornaments were ruined. He was legitimately upset. Then again, Jack had never paid attention to my lesson on scoring and sliping or making sure clay is wedged so it wouldn’t blow up in the kiln. As Jack slunk out of class he said, “Goodbye”. I replied with, “Have a day”. I couldn’t find it in myself to add the word “good”.

The next day Jack returned with a poster he created on the computer. It was an image of a yellow smile face but with a straight line for the mouth. The caption read, “Have A Day”.

Have a Day

Later that week he returned with a stack of posters asking to borrow tape. He placed the “Have A Day” posters throughout the school.

The next week, he email me a link to the official “Have A Day” website. It was complete with the “Have A Day” poster for download, “Have A Day” screen saver, “Have A Day” desktop wallpaper and even the “Have A Day” telephone answering message available for download in .wav format.

As usual, Jack’s practical joke was very funny to him, but this time, on the bright side, the Have A Day creations weren’t destructive in anyway.  More importantly, he was creating. Obviously I had tapped into something.

However, all this came a little too late. We spent another week together after Christmas break before finals and then the semester was over. Jack moved on to other classes, and I had a new group of highly motivated students ready to create art every day without being destructive at all.

At the time I was glad to put my Jack experience behind me. Looking back now, I can’t help but wonder what our time together would have been like if I could have learned to understand him sooner. If I could have been less wrapped up in what I considered the teaching of “art” and more concerned about the creative process and tapping into Jack’s creative nature, I might possibly have saved myself, and Jack, a little heartache.

I have to say Jack was the hardest student I ever taught. However, he taught me more about myself then I could have ever taught him including to make sure I always… have a day.



What is the most difficult student you have ever taught?

Did that student teach you anything about yourself?

Were you able to form a meaningful relationship? Why or why not? 

*For confidentiality reasons, please refrain from using students’ actual names!*

Ian Sands

This article was written by former AOE writer and choice-based art education expert, Ian Sands.


  • I honestly have to say this is exactly like my son a younger version. Last year I was at wits end with my own 6 year old. The practical joker and really walked to the beat of his own drum since he could walk. Basically he lived in the hallway and also demands a 100% of time from everyone and asked soooo many questions. He loved coming up with funny things to do during class but it bothered him when he couldn’t get things to go right and that would set him off into the class clown. He was behind in class and jumped from task to task. I could see this becoming a huge problem as he got older I wanted the school to test him. The school officials kept telling me he would probably have to go into another program and would probably come back on the autism scale. I also being a teacher with not just my art degree ( but thought of as only the art teacher) I also have my early childhood, curriculum instruction and enough extra courses in special education to be dangerous. To think “no” he is a hard child to work with but I didn’t see the autism. We have several cousins and yes it runs in the family, so why not have him tested maybe I would find something out. My oldest, a girl then 16 was nothing like him.

    After testing we all sat down with the four testing officials and the outcome. They stated my son hit low in math but then missed the entire Knd year. he was low/average in everything else ( not sure how since he was in the hall most of the time) and his spatial testing came out high to really officially test. He surpassed the elementary testing to the point since he couldn’t read, so couldn’t move on in the testing. They also put him in the ADHD category which I wasn’t sure on but we did medicate after debate. So we called the summer between Knd and 1st grade reprogramming summer. Working on social skills and how to use his skills. We had no clue where to start We also talked to several teachers, psychologist and read books. His learning style is spatial mostly and he is weak in everything else.

    I had to find his interests. So he loves super heroes so we went to a Comic Con. He has a comic book artist uncle he sat with him and met all the artists, authors, and movie creators. Basically a whole bunch of very artistic people. It fascinated him and his favorite was the use of the iPad in creating comics, the digital arts. So we had to tap into what interested him to motivate him to concentrate and learn other subjects. He created various digitally created comics on the iPad over the summer.

    Then we crossed our fingers and hoped he didn’t revert back into his old patterns in school. He actually didn’t! He is not as demanding still a bit of a clown, but not the behavior issue he was. He uses all those concepts of creating comics into practical applications in reading, math, and socially.

    After reading your article it sounds like this student is similar. Very strong in one way of learning and has not adapted using that above average skill so masks it with being “funny”.

    • Reading your story was inspiring, especially coming from not only the perspective of a teacher, but of a mother as well. Thank you for sharing. We all have students we can get to know more. I also appreciate you sharing the specific examples that helped your son, so hopefully others can benefit.

  • Mrs.C

    I loved this post Ian… I work with many “Jack’s” and a few “Jill’s” in my schools. I teach art to K-5, unlike your situation I will work with these students for an entire school year and for all their K-5 years with us. I get to have that extra time you didn’t get, I am able to make a connection, figure out what makes them tick, their likes/dislikes,etc… it helps. Yes, they have days when they are very unlovable, needy,etc… but I get to know the real kid inside and I usually find that kid that really is a cool kid but has a really crappy reality and it affects his/her whole being. The PE teacher in my K-2 school stopped me this morning to ask if I was having trouble with “X” lately because he has been a complete terror in her class lately. Well ,honestly, he is having some really rough days these past few weeks but it’s been ok, I work with him, no ,he doesn’t get to break the rules but certain things get ignored and he knows when the way he is getting my attention is not appropriate, I talk to him, I don’t talk at him, I give him choices and he has to choose from those, I stand my ground. Yes, he has been really unlovable lately but, he really is one of my favorite kids, when he lets you see the real “X” you see he really is a great kid. But he doesn’t always let you see that kid. I wish that more of us would take the time to find the real kid inside the walls these guys put up. Yeah ,it’s draining and it takes a commitment to figure them out but in the end it really is worth it, not just for us but for them… :)

  • ronnidart

    I really liked this post too. I am the one in my school who even though certain Jacks and Jills drive me crazy, I always try to sympathize with their situations. The one thing to keep in mind, is that if I Jacks and Jills could choose, they would not want to be who they are. What student wants to be in trouble all the time?
    What student truly wants so much negative attention? It really is not personal, even though it seems that way.
    I had a student for several years who was a foster child. Mother ran off, Dad was low IQ, alcoholic, and had severe emotional issues himself. He and his siblings were taken from dad during a domestic dispute between mom and dad. as the police officer was arresting the parents for beating on each other, he decided to take a look around the house. He found the kids in a locked room with a mail slot. There was a dirty mattress on the floor, feces around the room and 1/2 eaten, rotting food all around. My Jack could be the sweetest most lovable kid you would ever want to meet. Just as you thought you were making head way with him, He would do something really bad. (Destroy another kid’s art, break something on my desk, one time he turned on the kiln.) He would let you in just so far, then he would push you away before you could push him away.
    Sometimes you do all you can to reach a child… You just have to keep trying and hope that when he or she grows up they will start to see that you were there trying,aet and that you never gave up.
    Oh and “Have a Day” is better than the alternative of “Have a Bad Day.” which is probably most days if you’re a Jack or Jill.

  • Pingback: Would You Let an Unenrolled Student Stay in Your Class? | The Art of Ed()

  • Adrienne P

    I find that trying to get to know my students and being “real” with them helps them to understand me as well as me understanding them and what they are like. Patience and positive encouragement seems to be the key also. Saying things like ” I understand you don’t love this project but I know you can do better, give it a try and take your time…you can do it!” Also, as hard as this is some days; being bubbly and a cheerful teacher really can set the tone. A simple ” Hey, how are you today Jack?” and if he responds with bad news or negatively, you just listen. It does wonders.