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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.

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Ryan's picture

Hi Ben,
As you said many issues were taking place to make this situation uncomfortable, and in the end an arguement. First of all, I would suggest that as to your role that day is not to enter into a verbal confrentation without background knowledge of the child or teacher. There are many scenarios I could list where the teacher was allowing this to happen, and where you could have gotten in even deeper than you did. As a student, this may be exactly what he wanted. I would suggest without this prior knowledge, try to do your job without stepping outside your role. If this is difficult, then wait till after class and approach the teacher about what happenned and find out the circumstances that way. I would be offended if a visitor of my classroom just started disciplining my students without permission to take on that role.

Gail Poulin's picture

I love posts that get me to do a bit of reflection. I teach kindergarten children and at any given time during a whole group lesson, I will have children off task and not listening. Here are some of the reasons:
1. I'm boring them with too much talk
2. Someone at their table is talking and they are distracted then asking that person to be quiet
3. The dynamic of certain groups of students causes them to be uncontrollably silly just by looking at each other
4. Emotional challenges of individual students including ADHA must be accounted for
5. School structure, parents, administration, and support services are not helping the teacher to meet all student needs with the necessary backup. (Where is the para support if this student regularly disrupts everyone's teaching/learning time?)
6. And there's no denying that some teachers don't have the skill or interest (any more) to try and change the situation.
Too many schools pass students along to new classes year after year because the System doesn't give the students the real support that's needed. Environments like that are like captaining a ship through a storm. Your were cruising by that day and happened to see the challenge that teacher faces every day. That's when classroom teachers jump ship and find jobs that are less stressful and more satisfying.

You were distracted by the student. Some of the kids around him were distracted as well. I guess my advice to you would be to have a gentle and understanding conversation with the teacher at some point to fill you in on how the situation got to that point.

Mike's picture

Our educational system has to start addressing this issue to make real changes in education. Why did this issue not happen as often in past generations? If you ask your parent or grandparents you will find they all have the same answer, discipline. Todays, students is smart and they realize what they can get away with and know what you as a teacher or administrator can do to them. This knowledge and lack of ability to really discipline students has left us a system in which the students are on par with the teacher. This type of system makes teaching a much more difficult task than it once was. Schools need to look at how to put teeth back in their discipline policies.

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