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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.

Comments (63)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

LindaC's picture

All teaching and every classroom is complicated. That is why I've asked Edutopia to preview Fred Jones, Tools For Teaching, Classroom Management: Discipline, Instruction and Motivation Program from schools where it has been implemented. He gives us the tools to handle any classroom disruption, instruction that assures that students are learning and a motivation program that turns the classroom into an arena of learning by using Preferred Activity Time, PAT, that students earn themselves. During this time that kids earn by doing what you want them to do, they play games that review spelling or social studies or math or even introduce new concepts. He is a brilliant educator who has worked his entire life to study and interpret what teachers need to know to succeed. And he is very funny. I've seen teachers almost falling out of their chairs with laughter at his workshops.

Jack Sanders III's picture

Ben
I would have done a similar action as you did-giving the student the look and then when I got the reaction that you got, I would have asked the teacher if they would excuse both of use from the classroom for a short moment. As you are heading outside the classroom, use this time to gather your thoughts and cool yourself down. Once outside try to talk to the student about the incident in the classroom. The student might be even less reactive now outside the classroom because there is no one around to impress. When it comes time to reenter the classroom I would only do so when I know that both of are calm and ready to head back in. This is a strategy that I used several times this past year when I had students try to challenge my authority. Hope it helps you on the next time, which I hope next comes again.

S. Meyer's picture

Hi Ben,
I'm glad that you posted this and opened the floor up for responses of strategies. I'm a first year teacher, and I've had similar circumstances with students who are blatenly rude to me and my fellow colleagues at time. I really enjoyed reading about your experience and all of the tips from other educators. I have learned that facial expressions do mean alot. I typically try to ignore my students unless they are interrupting the entire class and chaos is about to erupt. I also then pull the student aside at a later, more convenient time, and explain that I didn't appreciate what he/she did. I read somewhere that sending "I" messages sometimes work when trying to diffuse a conflict.
Great posting, and thanks to all the above posters for great suggestions.

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

S. Meyer:

I wasn't planning on saying anything. It was the glare that did it. Of course you are correct in that I was out of my "authority" zone in saying anything. Don't get me wrong, there are wonderful students out there. This one wasn't so wonderful, but I had the skills to deal with "her" but I did not use them.

Thanks for the comment.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]Ben,

Because you were a visitor in the classroom, you really shouldn't say anything to the student. I would have just ignored the rude student, and would have just keep glaring at him. If it really bothered me I would probably speak to the teacher after class, or have gone to the administrator explaining what you witnessed in the class. Some students especially older ones have learned that they can treat adults any way they please. They talk to their parents that way and continue this behavior at school. I don't know if the public realizes how bad some students behavior can be. It seems to be getting worse and worse.[/quote]

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

Jack:

That is what I should have done! Thanks for the idea. It would have sent a clear message to the student and the teacher that this behavior is unacceptable. Given the extra time to cool down, I could have engaged my brain and thought of what I really should do to help this student.

Very wise!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]Ben

I would have done a similar action as you did-giving the student the look and then when I got the reaction that you got, I would have asked the teacher if they would excuse both of use from the classroom for a short moment. As you are heading outside the classroom, use this time to gather your thoughts and cool yourself down. Once outside try to talk to the student about the incident in the classroom. The student might be even less reactive now outside the classroom because there is no one around to impress. When it comes time to reenter the classroom I would only do so when I know that both of are calm and ready to head back in. This is a strategy that I used several times this past year when I had students try to challenge my authority. Hope it helps you on the next time, which I hope next comes again.[/quote]

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

Sara:

You did fine. Thanks for chiming in. Discipline is a nightmare for some substitutes. I found that when I was a substitute, the best way to handle discipline was deliberate distraction. I did not have the authority of the regular teacher, but I was new and I could use that to my advantage. I did magic tricks, humor, brain teazers, puzzles, competitions, and assignment alterations to throw the students off center and get their attention. Once I had it, it was relatively simple to direct them into what I wanted.

It is so hard for teachers to develop relationships of trust with the parents, mainly because of minimal communication. The parents who need to partner with the teacher the most, are typically the ones that are hardest to contact. For the most part, good students come from stable homes, but not always, so it is not fair to say that all homes with problems have problem students and visa versa. Another program that helps a ton with this is Capturing kids hearts by Flip Flippen. He believes that a teacher who has a solid relationship of trust with a student can get the student to behave and perform at previously incredible levels.

Thanks for the post

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]As I mentioned I do not know what I am doing and now it really shows. I thought it erased my original post when I registered and now I have posted twice and do not know how to delete one. I can only edit. so sorry to have wasted time and space on this.

I have never commented on a blog so forgive me if this is not how it is done. I teach kindergarten in a rural community and I do not usually have much trouble with disrespectful students. I do have some issues on a much smaller scale. I think television and parental acceptance of certain behaviors have a great influence on how a child acts at school. I have several Amish students in my class each year and there is a huge difference in respect. I am not saying they always behave, but they are never disrespectful. I have also noticed a difference in first born children and those with much older siblings. I think as a teacher we need to think about where a child comes from and model the respect we expect. It is difficult coming into a classroom and not knowing the history of a situation. That is why substitute teaching can be so complicated.[/quote]

LindaC's picture

If you are substituting , the best book you can read is, Tools For Teaching, Classroom Management, Discipline, Instruction and Motivation- if you are any kind of teacher , actually. But for subs, walking into a different classroom each day can be so stressful. The system that Fred teaches us makes you able to enter every classroom filled with confidence that you can manage it. His chapters on Building Classroom Structure, and Succeeding From Day One, will give you those tools and confidence. The information and training from section 6, "Learning to Mean Business"helps you to stay calm , be consistent, set limits and eliminate backtalk. I must tell you from experience that this works! You can produce responsible behavior in students, even when serving as a substitute.

Keri Woronka's picture

I agree that a look, whether it has a negative or a positive connotation could speak more than words. In some cases this is beneficial, such as when you want give a student an indirect warning or praise. In some cases students see emotions that are meant to be masked.
I recently participated in a workshop that discussed a student similar to the one you have described. This type of student sits in the back, makes noises, or attempts to distract others and take the focus off the lesson. This student is attempting to control the situation and the class and if recognition is granted, this particular type of student has succeeded. The presenter said that acknowledging this type of student lets them know that they have control of the situation. The best way to handle a control seeking student is to attempt to ignore the behavior, or distract the other students away from the behavior. She had mentioned that teachers must pick their battles and if everyone else is able to concentrate and the behavior is ignored, the control seeking student will eventually cease and join the class.
When the behavior did start to control the classroom, she would diffuse the situation by using wit such as you described. She had a situation when a student started to bang on the desk. She attempted to ignore the behavior, but it continued and the students were distracted. She stopped her lesson, had everyone pick up their pencils and bang on the desk for 2 minutes. Since this behavior was now allowed in the classroom, the control seeking student no longer felt this was a desirable behavior and stopped.
Students seem to build tolerances to behavior that reoccurs. Do you think the teacher did not recognize the behavior because the other students were not distracted?

Erin B's picture
Erin B
Walden University Graduate Program

Looks can be powerful. I remember certain teachers I had in school that I knew were angry when they gave you that "look." That "look" meant to stop what you are doing, whether goofing off or off-task behavior and start paying attention. However, if this "look" was given to certain students who were disrespectful, the students would not change what they were doing. It is hard to change an attitude of disrespect when you are sure it stems from the parents. I truly feel that many students who behave badly in the classroom do so due to lack of respect for those in front of them.
High schoolers are at a crazy time in their lives as it is, and learning how to respect someone, especially teachers and school staff when all they know how to do is disrespect, is difficult for them and those adults involved. My experience is with elementary students, not high school, but I have learned a few things about disrespectful students.
I have learned that the chance of me changing the home life of a student is slim-to-none. However, I can take those few hours a day I have influence over them and show them how to respect not only me, but other adults and peers. I show my students nothing but respect. If I get upset or feel as if I disrespected them, I apologize to them and we talk about the situation.
In Ben's situation, I think something kind-hearted and humorous may have been a great way to try to redirect the distracted and disrespectful student. However, I would definitely let the teacher know afterwards so they are aware of the situation. I do this is in my classroom, however, please keep in mind that I teach elementary. If another teacher or adult in the school make me aware of a situation where a student is being disrespectful, I have the child miss out on some kind of fun, engaging activity to write an apology letter to that person. It does not have to be much, just a few sentences, but after some time, I saw that students who were repeatedly having to write the letters began thinking before acting and speaking, and they learned the philosophy "if you do not have something nice to say, don't say nothing at all..."

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