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Daily Journal
     August 17, 2022      #23-229 KDJ

Speaker focuses on reaching 'problem' kids in

By Stephanie Markham

MOMENCE — About 300 teachers from Momence, St. Anne and Grant Park school districts gathered Tuesday to hear author, motivational speaker and former teacher Brian Mendler talk about how to engage hard-to-reach students.

Drawing on his own experience as a “problem” student and overcoming his addiction to gambling and drugs, Mendler, from Rochester, NY, presented to a full auditorium of teachers at Momence Community High School.

Mendler has been clean and in addiction recovery for nearly 21 years, he said.

Over the past 12 years, he has written or co-authored several books related to teaching, including “That One Kid,” “Tips for Teachers,” “Power Struggles,” “Turning Tough Parents into Strong Partners,” and “Watch Your Mouth.”

He also hosts an education podcast, and he spoke at 104 schools last year, he said.

“My goal today — my goal everyday — is to remind teachers why they do this job,” Mendler said. “It’s easy for teachers to get burned out and tired.”

Mendler was a nine-year teacher in New York.

“I try to remind them what that [reason] was, so that this year, when they’re feeling frustrated and annoyed, aggravated, they can be reminded, ‘Oh yeah, but I can go impact this kid’s life.’ That’s what it’s all about — changing their lives.”

Though he struggled with being placed in a self-contained special education classroom as a student, it became his focus as a teacher.

With severe undiagnosed ADHD, Mendler had difficulties reading and listening in school, he recalled.

In fourth grade, a teacher suggested he might be “lazy” and “unmotivated” when he didn’t finish his math homework.

The young Mendler felt like crying. Instead, he lashed out.

“When you’re a kid, you can’t really fight back against a teacher, I mean not with your hands,” Mendler said. “You have to fight back with your words. I was really good at that.”

At that point, Mendler was labeled not only as “learning disabled” but also “emotionally disturbed.”

He talked about the lasting emotional effects of being labeled and feeling like an outcast when separated from the rest of his classmates.

“Today, I’m smart enough to know I’m not disabled. Not one ounce. Not even a little. They had it all wrong,” he said. “I do struggle with something in my life. I struggle with reading.”

Although he had a hard time, Mendler said he believes the “good outweighs the bad” when it comes to self-contained classrooms.

It is up to teachers to make sure students are included and not forgotten about, he said.

“What I am asking though, is that some of you regular education teachers don’t forget about us, because the truth is that some of you do forget about us,” he said. “The truth is that some of you put us in that room, and it’s like we don’t even exist anymore. What I’m asking is that every once in a while, you come knocking on that door.”

In sixth grade, Mendler started cheating on his classwork and got positive feedback when his grades improved.

His teachers only found out when another student told on him.

He then got into an argument with his principal, leading to him getting kicked out and sent to a special school.

“I didn’t care. I simply did not care. And see, when you are a kid who doesn’t care, you become dangerous,” he said. “I had no hope. I believe hope is the single most important thing we can give kids.”

He noted that a teacher at his new school got through to him more in five minutes than his past teachers did in kindergarten through sixth grade, and that teacher helped him to change his life.

When Mendler himself was a teacher and on the road to addiction recovery, he turned that concept around and asked his students to help their teacher in return.

“When you spend all that time in your life getting helped, it’s easy to become helpless; that’s kind of what helpless is,” he said. “When we can flip that on its head and get the kid who’s always being helped to become the helper, you often see a change in kids like no other.”

Mendler’s students were asked to help keep him accountable. Their homework assignment each week would be to ask questions about how his recovery meetings went.

“In 21 years of going to a recovery meeting, I have never been to one in my life where I haven’t learned tons of things I could teach my students the next day.”

Mendler’s mother, who was also a teacher, suggested he look into the profession when he felt lost and lacked direction in his life.

“I wasn’t a huge fan of school,” Mendler noted. “I struggled in school as a kid, and I actually didn’t want to be a teacher.”

He resisted the idea at first, until his mom said one day that maybe he shouldn’t become a teacher after all because he lacked patience.

“I’m oppositional, so I said, ‘Why not?’” he recalled.

Then, he discovered he could become a special education teacher, and he set out to make a difference in the lives of kids who have a hard time in school like he did.

“I realized there were parts of teaching where you could work with kids who got in trouble,” Mendler said. “You didn’t have to be the traditional teacher who taught 30 kids in a classroom.”

Momence Superintendent Shannon Anderson noted that the presentation was a collaboration among the area districts, with Momence hosting for the use of its auditorium.

“I think it’s great because we’re all closely located together,” Anderson said. “A lot of us know each other.”

Grant Park Superintendent John Palan added that the opportunity to bring the three communities together after the pandemic was also a benefit.

“And obviously having Brian here is a major plus,” Palan said. “He has a great message.”

After the first hour of Mendler’s presentation, which lasted from about 8 a.m. to noon, Anderson said he started getting feedback of how poignant the presentation was.

“I’ve already been getting some comments on my phone that this is just what we needed today — really focusing on students and focusing on kids,” Anderson said. “Brain is really hitting the mark with so many of those things … I really like the way that he brings information from a student’s point of view, but also from a teacher’s point of view. It’s really cool for our staff to be able to see that.”

St. Anne Superintendent Charles Stegall said he has known Mendler for about 15 years and always known him to be an inspirational speaker.

“I always appreciate how he interacts with the audience, and he is not afraid to push the boundaries a little bit and make people think,” Stegall said. “At the end of the day, everyone is going to leave here recognizing that he loves what he does, he loves kids, and he loves the profession of teaching.”

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