George Lucas Educational Foundation
Classroom Management

#ThinkPossible: Not Giving Up on Disruptive Students Even When We Really, Really Want To

July 25, 2016 Updated November 13, 2017
Student acting out in class Debenport

#ThinkPossible is about persistence. It’s about faith. It’s about knowing that somehow you can get “it” accomplished. But in education, there are so many variables beyond our control, and when it comes to reaching certain students, you have a limited amount of time to make a difference in that child’s life. One little year. That’s all you get. One little year to make a connection, to become a trusted guide, to earn a place in their brain to be a voice in their head when their own voice betrays them. To me, as a middle school teacher, the hardest part is making that connection in the brief 45-minutes a day in which I have a student. But making that connection is vital if we are going to help that student achieve.

So while I think there are hundreds of emotional examples I could share of times when the impossible became possible (a life I saved, a battle between adults won), I wanted to share one small example, one that every teacher can recognize themselves, of when persistence was tested, when I questioned my own belief that I could help a student, and when I momentarily lost my way on the road to #ThinkPossible.

In every class, every year, there are those who test you and your class structure. It’s in the nature of the classroom-beast. You can’t have that many people in one room and have them all on the same page without some work. I don’t take it personally, though I fully know that not every kid will love me. Heck, I don’t love every boss I’ve worked with, but you have to calibrate your temper and your actions so that you can work together for the time you have to. It’s a life lesson.

Andrew and Jason were 8th-grade cousins, a dynamic duo of dastardly deeds, that fed off each other. They were each other’s audience, even when the rest of the class wanted the theater closed. They were lazy, but 8th-grade boys who underachieve are nothing new. It’s a part of my job to help them tap into why they should want to work through things. But they were also collaborative group saboteurs and passive-aggressive hecklers who constantly muttered in the background.

I pride myself in being a teacher that constantly recalibrates her own practice, day-by-day, and student-by-student. I focus on different strategies of student engagement, and while we laugh a lot in my classroom, we work hard, and students are constantly sharing their victories and growth with each other. But somehow I still couldn’t get to these guys. They never did anything so outright that it was explosively disruptive; they simply got under my skin, and as a result, I had a hard time looking forward to the class period in which they were.

Nevertheless, I never sent them out and never sent them to the office. I handled it myself and felt it was important somehow that despite all their disruptions, they still remained in the classroom to absorb what they could and be a part of a community. Granted it was a community that was growing more frustrated with their behavior with each day, but I wanted them to know that they weren’t going to be given up on. There was no way I was going to kick them out of the family. Nevertheless, I realized that I had to refocus on others, and I quietly took home my sadness that the year would end without Andrew and Jason having felt some success in my classroom. However, in turning my attention to others in the room, I soon realized that I had cut Andrew and Jason off from the very air of attention in which they thrived. The class appreciated the subtle shift in focus as well, and the students themselves began to “help” the cousins make better decisions. There’s nothing like peers taking control of the situation.

Cut to a year later, and the next school year has begun. It’s a morning in September and I walk into my classroom, various mismatched bags and coffee in hand. There’s a handwritten note on my desk:

OK, so the character change I had wanted to see didn’t happen on my watch, but the impossible had indeed happened. You never know the book to which you are contributing, and you never know the ending of a student’s book or your role in it. #ThinkPossible

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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