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He used to be a troubled student. Here’s what helped him turn it all around

“We just kept showing up to love him.”
School administrator Laney Rogers hugs her former student Howard Kitchen, now 17.
School administrator Laney Rogers hugs her former student Howard Kitchen, now 17.Courtesy Laney Rogers
/ Source: TODAY

When Laney Rogers met Howard Kitchen, Howard was just 4 years old. 

He was adorable. He was also prone to tantrums and destruction. But faculty and staff at Union City Schools in Tennessee — from the teachers to the administrators to the cafeteria staff to the school janitor — never gave up on him.

Rogers had been Howard’s special education teacher during his younger years, and she never forgot him. In a now-viral post on Facebook, Rogers wrote in part, “Everyone took a rotating turn in that elementary school with Howard. We would literally tap in and out of the war zone.” 

She said she studied behavior management and tried technique after technique to “fix” Howard. But what ultimately “fixed” him wasn’t anything learned in a book or in a class, she said. It was love. 

“I feel so glad to have a person who loves me and supports me,” Howard Kitchen, now a 17-year-old senior in high school, told TODAY Parents. Last month, he started mentoring “little Howards” at the elementary school where his journey began. His efforts there are already paying off. 

“Howard is my best best best best friend,” 5-year-old Christian Scates told TODAY. “When I get mad, he teaches me how to get calm. I count to 10.”

Rogers said she was inspired to snap a photo of Howard with her at the elementary school when she saw him, now a man, walking the same hallways where she used to chase him down as a child. Today, throngs of kids look up to him there. 

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Howard gave her permission to post the photo on social media. It’s been shared more than 25,000 times, and Howard is keeping track of its reach on a map. 

“I’m so excited, I was just crying,” he said of the attention and positive comments the photo is getting. Howard said his ultimate hope, after much prayer, is that his story will somehow bring others “closer to Christ.” He said he plans to attend a post-secondary school next year, and he hopes to become a preacher. 

Rogers is now an administrator for the Union City school district. She told TODAY that her experience with Howard changed her life, her career and the future of so many kids who have come after him.

“I now know what’s possible,” she said. “It’s not about trying to fix a problem but putting the right people in the right place. ...

“Don’t give up on the Howards in the world — they make you better people.”

It’s also about a shift in attitude. Rogers said that the way adults react to and talk about the “difficult” students is crucial to get everyone invested in a positive way. Once everyone wants to buy in and help, it can be a “game-changer,” she said. 

“I always try to put myself in the mother’s [of the student] shoes,” Rogers added. She said that approach helped her get through the difficult days with Howard and with other little Howards after him. Ultimately, though, she said the most important thing is to “keep showing up.”

“We just kept showing up to love him,” Rogers wrote. “ just fixed itself. Howard grew up. Howard realized that none of us were going anywhere. Howard knew his parents and his school were never going to give up expecting the best of him. There wasn’t a cure I studied, an article I read or a therapy that clicked with Howard. It was just good old basic love and kindness from a whole lot of amazing people.”