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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

Robbie Monsma's picture

I would have looked the student right in the eye and whispered: "I'm sorry, am I distracting you?"

LindaC's picture

Learning, actually training yourself, to remain calm, to use a Queen Victoria look and body language of 'I am not amused" will keep any situation with s student from escalating. After all, we are the adults in the room and losing our temper is not acceptable. When you understand that every time you let a student upset you, your body is pumping adrenaline which does not fade for a least a half hour per upset, you will understand why teachers are so tired at the end of most days and you will definitely want to learn how to stay calm no matter what. This is one of the underpinnings of Dr Fred Jones' program.
Another favorite Fred Jones saying or "Fredism",is "It takes one fool to backtalk, it takes two fools to make a conversation out of it'
Staying calm, never arguing with any student, remaining quiet and using body language to let students (or your own kids) know you "mean business' will go a long way in helping manage students, your own children,and your health and longevity!

Belinda's picture

Ryan, I admire what you did regardless of your role in that particular classroom on that particular day. That's what wrong with today's society. We have become conditioned to accept what's wrong. Believe or not, kids like structure. You did the right thing to call it out as you saw fit. I wouldn't have gone into a power struggle with the kid, but at the same token, I would have let the student know that the behavior was disrespectful and totally unacceptable. We can no longer go on letting our children think that these things are acceptable. When we fail to address them, regardless of our role, then we have also given them the okay to continue the wrong doings. We need teachers who are as courageous as yourself.

suzi4411's picture

I have to deal with administration that will not "come down" on the students I send to the office. Trust me, by the time I send them I have already gone through my trick bag and they need more. I often think administrators want the ADA at the cost of my other 33 student's education.

suzi4411's picture

Ben, Might I point out that today's society is no longer "normal is good". We have progressed (I'd say digressed) to a point where I come first is in the heart and minds of most adults. Look at the daily news, adulterious movie stars, unethical money managers, etc... What role model do students have today? The few of us teachers who try just sound like Charlie Brown's teacher. BLA BLAH BLA BLAH. I'm working on a Master's Degree integrating technology into the classroom. I plan on teaching for another 20 years and I have to find a way to excite and motivate the students, because the apathy I'm seeing is leading us downhill fast. Full circle back to the parents who are too busy doing what they want to give theirs children the push they need.

LindaC's picture

If you need a way to manage your class, excite and motivate your students and truly be able to say in the profession for twenty years, than I recommend Fred Jones! He has saved the health and love of teaching for so many teachers. It is not about what society does, it is about what each one of us does in our own classrooms - how we are trained to manage kids and how we offer instruction and what we do to motivate. I may be Fred Jones' biggest fan - his work is about how to teach, how to manage and how to motivate. I have a degree in education from Rutger University but I never learned how to teach, how to motivate and how to manage even the most annoying students until I found his book and program. When we talk about "what works in schools", his should be at the very top of the list.

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

Linda:

Thanks for sharing your success with Fred Jones. I have heard a bit about him but I have never had the pleasure of participating in on of his seminars. If he empowers the teacher to take control of situations rather than depending on the administrators to do the dirty work, then I am all for it. I will have to look him up. Thanks for the testimonial.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]If you need a way to manage your class, excite and motivate your students and truly be able to say in the profession for twenty years, than I recommend Fred Jones! He has saved the health and love of teaching for so many teachers. It is not about what society does, it is about what each one of us does in our own classrooms - how we are trained to manage kids and how we offer instruction and what we do to motivate. I may be Fred Jones' biggest fan - his work is about how to teach, how to manage and how to motivate. I have a degree in education from Rutger University but I never learned how to teach, how to motivate and how to manage even the most annoying students until I found his book and program. When we talk about "what works in schools", his should be at the very top of the list.[/quote]

Janay's picture

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.

Sara Martin's picture

I have never commented on a blog before so forgive me if this is not how it works. I teach kindergarten in a rural community so I don't see a lot of disrespect in my classroom. However I do notice some things on a much smaller scale. Television and parental acceptance of certain behaviors has a big influence on how a child acts at school. I have several Amish students in my class each year and the difference is remarkable. I won't say they are better behaved but they are definitely more respectful. I can also see a difference in a first born child and children with much older siblings. The saying that children do what they see and hear is so true! I think as teachers all we can do sometimes is think about where a child comes from and model the respect we expect.

Sara Martin's picture

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.

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