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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How Tough Kids Can Make Us Better Teachers

Dr. Allen Mendler

Author, speaker, educator

Early in the school year, Mr. Spriggs asked me to sit in on a conference with his most challenging student. Jon rarely participated appropriately in class, instead drawing attention to himself by "accidentally" dropping books, suddenly having coughing spells and loudly expelling air from either end. It was considered a relative victory when his disinterest expressed itself more quietly through slouched shoulders, bored yawns and feigned sleep.

As the conference began, Jon seemed prepared for an expected onslaught of demands and nagging, defending himself with a steely downward glare and arms firmly folded across his chest. Mr. Spriggs opened the conversation by saying, "Jon, I just want to tell you that I am really glad you're in my class. I know that it is not your favorite place to be, but I'm trying hard to make sure I'm the right teacher for you. I've tried many different ways to teach you, but so far they haven't worked very well. I'll keep trying so that you learn. That is what is most important to me. I want to thank you for being a part of my class. You are forcing me to be a better teacher, and that is good for me. If you can help me understand what I might be able to do that would make you want to be a better student, I would really appreciate knowing that." Seeming surprised if not shocked by the absence of blame and expected vitriol, Jon appeared to relax and hesitantly offered a few ideas -- such as not being asked to read aloud and being corrected in private -- that led to an eventual meeting of the minds and vast improvement.

The Importance of Attitude

Educators often ask me for strategies that work with difficult students, and I have devoted a considerable amount of effort and creativity in developing these, filling up numerous books. I am still at it, too, since there is no one size that fits everyone. Yet I never cease to be amazed at the importance of attitude in achieving success with all kinds of students, but in particular, our most difficult ones. It is attitude that drives strategy. Like a house's foundation or a car's engine, attitude may be rarely seen but is often at the very core of how effectively things function. Rather than asking or demanding that Jon change his behavior, Mr. Spriggs wisely started the conversation by opening himself to change. Unlike conventional thinking that might have gone something like, "Things between Jon and me would be better if only he would/did_______," this teacher changed his approach to, "Things would be fine between Jon and me if only I would/did_______."

Let's look at the attitudes reflected by this strategy:

  • Your presence is important to me. ("I'm really glad you're in my class.")
  • Not everyone learns the same way. ("I've tried many different ways to teach you . . . I'll keep trying.")
  • We can all get better, including me. ("You are forcing me to be a better teacher.")
  • I value your opinion. ("What can I do that would make you want to be a better student?")

A Simple Experiment

It is not unusual to think that if only others changed their ways, our lives would be so much better. For example, if only my students cared about their work, teaching would be great. If only I got more support from the administration (or parents or district or state education department), things would be so much better. Although there is nothing wrong with trying to improve our circumstances, as we all know, the only real control we ultimately have is over what we do and how we are. We are much more likely to influence change in others when we treat them as we want them to be rather than as they are. So for the next two or three weeks, try the following experiment that will require some tweaking of your attitude and behavior.

Start by thinking about your most challenging student (or class). How do you feel about this student, and how do you act? What comments or adjectives come naturally? Now think of your best-behaved or highest-achieving student (or class). How do you feel about this student, and how do you act? When you think about this student, what comments come naturally? When this student makes a mistake, how do you usually react? When you see this student's parent, what do you say? For the next two weeks, act toward your worst-behaved or lowest-performing student in the same way you would your best student. Greet him the same way. Use the same kinds of encouraging language that you might use with your high-performing student. Treat her as if she has already achieved the same level of performance or behavior as your best-behaved or best-performing student -- even if she only completes one problem out of ten. Bring the same degree of energy and pride. Try not to be dissuaded by what the student actually says or does. In fact, at those times try to focus on how his challenging behavior is helping to make you a better teacher.

See what happens.

Author's Note: Author and entrepreneur Brian Mendler contributed to this post.

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