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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How Do You Handle Difficult Situations with Students?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

"So do you have a problem with me?" the student asked.

"Yes I do." I testily answered. "You need to be quiet and listen to the teacher!"

"What do you care? Just keep fixing that computer!" replied the student.

Unfortunately, I was only a visitor in the classroom that day (there to fix the computer). The above exchange occurred when I just couldn't stand it any longer and turned and looked for the student who was making all that noise while the teacher was trying to teach high school biology.

I must have had an angry look on my face when I turned to look, and that single look got a nasty reaction. It didn't get any better between that student and me. But it did get me thinking: What would I have done differently to diffuse the situation if I were the teacher?

I'm not going to talk about the sad state of society where students can feel comfortable being rude to adults, nor will I discuss any specifics about the student. I am also not going to address that the teacher seemed oblivious to what was going on between the student and this visitor. (My reason for not tackling any of those topics? If we are to fix education, we have to stop blaming and making excuses. We just need to fix it starting with ourselves!)

As I mentioned above, my facial expression may have cued the response. Perhaps when I looked in a perturbed fashion at this student it was viewed as a challenge. I wonder if it would have been any different if I had kept my face passive. Probably. But, after all, I communicated what I really wanted to communicate. With just my look, I told this student that I was displeased.

Then I thought, what could I have said that would have made things better? I know that humor is the best thing to deflect angry situations, but I was peeved. I wish I had recalled in that moment all the research that shows when you are irritated, your brain basically shuts off.

Maybe I should have said with a wry smile, "I'm sorry, the teacher is speaking so loudly that I cannot hear what you are saying." Or perhaps I could have stated, "Nope, I am just sitting here listening to you enjoying the Kreb cycle." If I had had my wits about me I could have -- and probably should have -- stood up and introduced myself to that student: "Oh, I'm sorry, we have not been properly introduced. I am the all powerful and wise adult. And you are?" All of these would have either made the student laugh or at least embarrassed the student enough to keep the student quiet. They would have had a more desirous outcome than what I did say.

Although I'm in classrooms daily, I typically do not have the pressure of getting students to do what they do not want to do. However, something I do know for certain: By allowing negative student behaviors to continue, teachers are not doing anyone a favor. We have to do something.

That is why I felt compelled to do something, so I gave the student "the look," and my authority as an adult was then challenged. Then, wisely or not, I decided to assert that authority. Both of us lost our dignity that day. And I admit I played my part in this.

I am curious to know: What would you have done in this situation? Please also share successful strategies for diffusing unnecessary conflicts. We are all in this together. I look forward to your suggestions and ideas.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Comments (63)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Natasha's picture

Actually, I can visualize a situation like this happening on a daily basis. As a teacher, I know that often the challenging students thrive off of attention, especially when a stranger walks into the classroom! I can't tell you how many instances I've encountered where parents walk in the room, school personel, student teachers, etc... walk into my classroom and the "challenging student" immediately begins demanding their attention. Of course, the "visitor" takes extreme notice to the child because they are practically begging for their attention. What visitors in classrooms need to understand is that the teachers know their students very well. In your encounter, the teacher may have acted like she didn't know that was happening, but she probably did. She knew that student was probably not listening and would thrive off of a visitor being in the room. That student knew exactly what he was doing, and the teacher probably knew exactly what he was doing. Sometimes the best thing a teacher can do is ignore these behaviors. What good would it have done to stop in the middle of a lesson and call out the student in front of the entire class? Especially in front of a visitor? Teachers must pick their battles, and that probably wasn't one she wanted to fight that day! We also don't know what happened after you left, and she may have handled the situation then which would have been more appropriate. There have been many times that after a visitor has left my room, that I have had to have a "talk" with my class about how we are supposed to act when there is a visitor and what the consequences will be if those types of behaviors happen again. I think the teacher in your situation did the right thing, and don't assume that the student got away with what he did or said.

Preeti Singh's picture

Ben,
I might have done the same thing. Do you think students are getting ruder every year? I teach Kindergarten and some of these students have no respect for teachers.
What is our society coming to? I remember we were so respectful to our teachers growing up.
Preeti Singh

Preeti Singh's picture

Ben,
I might have done the same thing. Do you think students are getting ruder every year? I teach Kindergarten and some of these students have no respect for teachers.
What is our society coming to? I remember we were so respectful to our teachers growing up.
Preeti Singh

S. Short's picture

At our school, we have adopted PBS. PBS stands for positive behavior support, it gives you the opportunity to give three positive to one negative. In the past, school-wide discipline has focused mainly on reacting to specific student misbehavior by implementing punishment-based strategies including reprimands, loss of privileges, office referrals, suspensions, and expulsions. Research has shown that the implementation of punishment, especially when it is used inconsistently and in the absence of other positive strategies, is ineffective. Introducing, modeling, and reinforcing positive social behavior is an important step of a student's educational experience (Skinner 1968.) Teaching behavioral expectations and rewarding students for following them is a much more positive approach than waiting for misbehavior to occur before responding. The purpose of school-wide PBS is to establish a climate in which appropriate behavior is the norm.

Elijah Lee's picture

I think it is very normal to feel the way you are feeling and it shows that you are a good and reflective educator. It is not okay for students to speak to adults disrespectfully and yes, you are right, we need to stop making excuses and do something about it. Where I work, we have implemented a Positive Behavior Support system also known as PBS it has been implemented district wide so if a student moves from one school in the district to another that student knows the expectations and what the rules are at that school. Our school rules are short, simple, and straight to the point. Be respectful, be safe, and be responsible. If I was in your position visiting this school and the student had spoken to me disrespectfully, I would have simply asked him, "Are you being respectful?" He has two choice, either yes or no. If he said he was being disrespectful I would have asked him what he could do to change his behavior. If he said no, I would have probably told him I think he needs to think about it some more. This is a tough situation simply because you are a visitor and the teacher is oblivious about the students behavior. One other thing I might have done is to talk to the students teacher about their behavior after class so the teacher is aware. This is something we are dealing with everyday whether it is in the classroom, playground, or cafeteria and I think the best thing we can do as teachers is to hold our students accountable and expect better from them.

C. Lewis's picture

If I were in the situation I may have asked the teacher if I could speak with her and ask her if she needed anything. I would not speak to the student unless the teacher gave approval. I agree with Michele J., there is a breakdown in discipline in the classroom. Perhaps the teacher needs to review her disciple procedures and possibly teach a lesson on respect.

C. Lewis's picture

If I were in the situation I may have asked the teacher if I could speak with her and ask her if she needed anything. I would not speak to the student unless the teacher gave approval. I agree with Michele J., there is a breakdown in discipline in the classroom. Perhaps the teacher needs to review her disciple procedures and possibly teach a lesson on respect.

LindaC's picture

I am so glad that you wrote about the value of Positive Behavioral Support and just wanted to share that there are many districts here using PBS funding sources to train their teachers with Fred Jones Tools For Teaching. His work aligns with their program and ideas perfectly. His "Responsibility training, Omission Training, Preferred Activity Time, Say See- do- Teaching, and Rules and Standards compliment every aspect of PBS.

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

C Lewis:

That is a great idea. It would have worked swell. The student would have been ignored while she ranted and raved about me looking at her and I would simply walk up to the teacher and indicate to her that one of her students had a problem that needs to be fixed. After the incident, I did use that tactic. The student initiated a confrontation again and I simply ignored her. This made her even more upset, but what could she do? I went about my business as if she was not even there. I was prepared to speak to the teacher but I believe the student saw the trap and backed off. Any way. I have learned a lot from this.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]If I were in the situation I may have asked the teacher if I could speak with her and ask her if she needed anything. I would not speak to the student unless the teacher gave approval. I agree with Michele J., there is a breakdown in discipline in the classroom. Perhaps the teacher needs to review her disciple procedures and possibly teach a lesson on respect.[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Elijah:

That is a wonderful way to put the monkey back on the shoulders of the student. Especially if this had been instructed in the positive behavior systems. I am afraid that this student would have simply brushed the question aside and said, "I don't care if I am respectful or not!" Then I would only have one answer for her, "Then our conversation is over!" All of this assumes that my brain is engaged and not my emotions.

Thanks for the vote of confidence!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]I think it is very normal to feel the way you are feeling and it shows that you are a good and reflective educator. It is not okay for students to speak to adults disrespectfully and yes, you are right, we need to stop making excuses and do something about it. Where I work, we have implemented a Positive Behavior Support system also known as PBS it has been implemented district wide so if a student moves from one school in the district to another that student knows the expectations and what the rules are at that school. Our school rules are short, simple, and straight to the point. Be respectful, be safe, and be responsible. If I was in your position visiting this school and the student had spoken to me disrespectfully, I would have simply asked him, "Are you being respectful?" He has two choice, either yes or no. If he said he was being disrespectful I would have asked him what he could do to change his behavior. If he said no, I would have probably told him I think he needs to think about it some more. This is a tough situation simply because you are a visitor and the teacher is oblivious about the students behavior. One other thing I might have done is to talk to the students teacher about their behavior after class so the teacher is aware. This is something we are dealing with everyday whether it is in the classroom, playground, or cafeteria and I think the best thing we can do as teachers is to hold our students accountable and expect better from them.[/quote]

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