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How Tough Kids Can Make Us Better Teachers

Dr. Allen Mendler

Author, speaker, educator
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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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Lorrie Soria's picture

This is so true! I have found the most useful phrase in dealing with difficult students to be: "I believe in treating people the way I want to be treated, and judging from the way you're treating me, I must have hurt your feelings somehow. Can you tell me when I did that, so I can make it right?" It stops student attitude in its tracks, makes them think about how I treat them, and usually opens a dialogue. If I have hurt their feelings somehow, they find a voice. If they're mad about something else, and I'm the tackling dummy, they usually step back, rethink their attitude, and tell me what the problem is. It's been very effective - kids want to be heard and respected, but they don't always have a voice or know how to earn that respect.

suehellman's picture

About every 4 years when teaching non-academic math, I'd find myself with a class where nothing worked and I felt as helpless as a first year teacher. Interestingly, when I had cancer and was going through chemotherapy I had to thank the 'tough' classes and kids over and over. What they did was give me the knowledge that I could endure and even thrive and mover forward better than before.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

I reject that it is necessary for a properly trained teacher to throw themselves on their sword in front of a student because their behavioral management strategies haven't worked. It is possible that some students, based on their past behavioral conditioning and life experience, will not be reachable or be capable of reform until that little light goes off in their heads on their own. Some kids have to reach their personal epiphanies on their own. Typically this comes with age and maturity, in my experience.

Tough street kids abhor weakness and if a teacher appears weak or irresolute before them then that teacher will not be respected under any circumstance.

And Dr. Mendler, I believe you are expecting teachers to act like social workers with at-risk kids. This is a mistake. The training to be a teacher or a social worker couldn't be anymore different.

Chris Larsh's picture

It's a matter of remembering that you are the adult. You gain no status from defeating a student in a power struggle. You stand to gain much in creating a relationship where that struggle will never happen, or will rapidly defuse itself on the odd occasion it does. Choosing the correct words, taking responsibility for misunderstandings and never leaving the student powerless all pay off in the long run. It's a sign of wisdom, not weakness to realize there's nothing to be won.

Diane Kendall's picture
Diane Kendall
Journalist specializing in educational technology and home/school tech

Last week my oldest child who is teaching at an Ivy League university related how one of her colleagues had spoken up in a meeting with the Special Services coordinator saying he did not want any students with LD accommodation placed in his classes because they weren't worth the extra challenge. I'd love to send him a copy of this article, but then he probably already thinks he knows everything about teaching. As for my son who is dyslexic and at another university, I just wish once in his school career someone had treated him like this and asked what would make a difference for him instead of acting like he was such a bother because sometimes they had to give him extended time on an exam or other slight accommodations.

kimbri524's picture

Thank you Dr. Mendler for sharing this story. Mr. Spriggs sounds like an amazing teacher, and if I were a student I would love to be in his class! I am eager to try the experiment you suggested in my classroom. A teacher's attitude is so important, and I want my students to know that I respect and value every single one of them, regardless of their academic progress or behavior in the classroom. I am hopeful that building strong relationships with my students will help to improve their behavior and academic success, and I'm determined to view difficult situations as challenges that will make me a better teacher and person.

G.L. Bledsoe, MAT, Consulting Hypnotist's picture

There is a range of behaviors that teachers should be expected to deal with. When a student's behavior goes outside that range, the teacher needs support in some fashion.

Having said that there are wonderful strategies available that support a positive learning environment. The technique described by Dr. Mendler is called "Going First" in the conversational hypnosis community. It is very effective. Teachers could learn a great deal from conversational hypnotists (and vice versa). Teachers already use techniques that are conversationally hypnotic in nature, but they don't realize it. If they did use them mindfully, they would discover even greater successes.

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