How To Reach The Most Challenging Students

Our District recently offered a “Twitter Challenge” to teachers as a way to let our educators see how powerful this platform could be. Until recently, I saw Twitter as another app that would be a drain on my time. Now I see it as a means to improve education by opening classroom doors and allowing educators to share the incredible things that are happening in our schools.

Our profession was too isolated for too long and tools like Twitter are changing that. The days of spending a few months with a cooperating teacher and emulating their style for 30 years are gone. Today, amazing educators are sharing, growing, becoming more innovative, and promoting innovation with their students.

I understand Twitter is not for everyone, but I am already seeing the benefits of the sharing, the pride, and the increased connections that this platform has helped to foster in North Rockland. Teachers who completed the challenge not only received a pin and a digital badge, but also the chance to have me cover one of their classes, giving them an extra prep.

This offer was a bit selfish on my part. Being in the schools allows me to learn from teachers, learn from kids, and helps me to avoid one of my biggest fears: being one of those central office administrators who forgets what it is actually like in schools and classrooms.

I was nervous and excited at the same time.  I wondered if I still had it. Could I still connect with kids?  I was a former “Gym” teacher; would I be able to hold their attention in a classroom and provide them with a meaningful experience? How would I go from AP Physics to 4th grade Social Studies to 6th grade self contained?

The question that nagged at me the most was how would I deal with the most challenging students?  I always felt these students were the ones who needed me the most and the ones who I was usually able to reach. Yet, they are the most exhausting, most exasperating, and the ones that made me want to scream.

I can relate to them because I was one of them; some may say I still am. I was the student that teachers would groan at when they saw my name on their roster. I was extremely “active”– a nice way of saying “He literally bounces of the damn walls”–“very social”, which was code for won’t shut the [email protected]#$# up. Teachers would often tell my mother, “He is smart. If we can just get him to use his brain to focus on the material rather than fooling around.” This actually meant, “He is a conniving little jerk that makes it his mission to disrupt my class and make my life a living hell.”  

Yes, I was that kid, and what made it worse was my father was the loud, aggressive, gym teacher who was never afraid to tell you exactly what he thought. If you were lucky or unlucky enough to get a word of disagreement in, it wasn’t beyond him get physical. His nickname was “Rumbler” for god sake and his favorite move was the rummy charge.  This was where the anger in his face would instantly turn to rage and, before you could blink, his 300-plus pounds were on top of you, defying logic and physics.

If that wasn’t enough, my mother was the secretary for the Superintendent. She is a petite blond, who is soft spoken, professional, and level headed, the complete opposite of her ex-husband. Yet, when it comes to protecting her only offspring, she is vicious.  A calculating mastermind that will invoke revenge that you don’t see coming, not an eye for an eye, rather two for one. And, she does it all with a smile.

This wasn’t going to stop my fourth grade teacher from establishing who was boss on the first day of class.  As we entered the room, he scowled at us, and demanded we sit down and be quiet. This had no effect on my “hyperactivity”, what they called ADHD in the 80’s.

I started with my crayola crayon sharpener. I twisted it back and forth, making a loud creaking sound. It took awhile for the teacher to realize it was me and snatch it from my hands. It didn’t take long for me to take out a pencil and run my sneaker over it on the floor, discovering that it made a similar sound to the sharpener.  

Mr. S was wise to my game this time and quickly discovered that I was the culprit. He grabbed the pencil, snapped it in two, gave me a “teacher look”, and kept right on warning the class of the consequences of messing with him. I came into class wanting to behave, but after the teacher embarrassed me further with a few sarcastic torts, I repeated my game with two more pencils, now really trying to get his goat.

It was working and was evident by the reddening of his face and neck.  He demanded that I give him every last pencil that I had in my desk. I obliged and I could see he took pure satisfaction when he dumped my prized pencils in the trash. The other kids in the class seemed a bit defeated as they realized my game was coming to an end.  What they and Mr. S didn’t know was that I also had pens!

My mother bought me enough school supplies to last 20 years. She often spoiled me because she loved me so much, but also to try to make up for the  fear that came with living with the “Rumbler”. I survived a lot more than this teacher could throw at me.

When I gently pulled out a pen and put it on the floor, some classmates shook their heads afraid of what the teacher would do, some smiled in anticipation, some just put their heads down. It only took about two or three “ent ewws” of the pen for the teacher to explode. He flew over to me and my desk and in one swift motion lifted my desk and dumped the remaining contents all over the floor.

The kids gasped, I was near tears, and the room was silent except for the teacher’s heavy breathing.  He completely lost it, and, to be honest, he scared us, even me. That didn’t prevent us from reenacting his meltdown over and over again in the lunchroom or on the playground. Getting him to lose his [email protected]# made me more popular than I had ever been before! One clever student gave the teacher a nickname that lasted for years, Mr. Redneck, not for his affinity of country music, but for how incredibly red his neck turned just before he flipped my desk.  

I learned a lot that first day in fourth grade even if I didn’t realize it then.  I learned successful strategies for dealing with the most annoying kid in the class because I was him. It also helped me to be more aware of being observant of strategies of how to deal with tough students. I  picked up so many other great techniques from visiting classrooms the past 25 years.

Sometimes Kids Are Not As They Appear

Even the most confident student in your class has something he/she is dealing with. Kids may seem spoiled, sarcastic, bitter, apathetic, lazy, or mean. It is so important to find out what is beneath the surface.

Relationships are the single most important factor in determining your success as an educator and the success of students. Take the time to speak to each student in your class, individually. Impossible to make the time?  How about when students finish a test or quiz early, or when students are working individually? How about staggering independent and group work to give you time to conference with students? What about having lunch or breakfast with your students?  Think about asking different questions as your relationships with students build such as:

  • A time you felt smart
  • A time you were scared
  • A time you were happy
  • If you could change one thing about yourself what would it be?
  • If you could change one thing about your life what would it be?
  • Who would you trade places with?
  • Who is the nicest person you know? What makes them nice?
  • Who is the meanest person you know?Why? How can you help them?
  • A time I made you happy in class
  • A time I disappointed you
  • What is unfair?
  • What is an area you wish you could improve upon? How can I help you with that improvement?

One teacher I know keeps notebooks each year.  She considers them prized possessions. “I revisit them sometimes when I want to send an encouraging email to my students years later or when I see them at graduation. They are shocked that I remember so much about who they were and in most cases still are.”

Never Take It Personal

It is hard; we are passionate, that is why we got into this field.  When kids misbehave, don’t follow directions, and/or disappoint us, we take it personally.  It is human nature to think: why are they doing this to me? The fact is most times it is not about us. There is something else going on; maybe they are:

  • Trying to impress classmates to be popular
  • Losing a loved one
  • Living in poverty
  • Ashamed of their clothes
  • Ashamed of their appearance
  • Feeling stupid
  • With a parent that is abusive
  • With a parent that is not around
  • Dealing with a stomach ache
  • Battling anxiety

The best educators make it their business to find out what makes each child tick, show empathy, and not take indiscretions personally.

It took me a while to get there, but now I realize it is not about that “pound of flesh”, but about changing the behavior and getting the student to an emotional place that allows him/her to learn.

Decide What You Can Live With

Is it really a big deal if a kid fidgets in his/her seat, can’t sit still, taps his/her pencil?  How about skipping in the hallway? What about off topic questions? Snotty noses, fidget spinners, loud, annoying laughing, tapping pencils etc…The list goes on and on; the things kids do that adults find annoying and kids don’t even seem to notice.

Determine what is that you can’t live with. It will be different for all teachers, but it can’t be everything.  Kids are kids and they need to move, need to be heard, need to be different, and sometimes they are annoying! Let them know up front what you can’t live with, let them know why, and give them permission to be kids in other areas, and give yourself permission to let go of some of that control.  

It doesn’t mean you are a bad teacher, or bad disciplinarian if you allow things in your class that others don’t.

Never Lose Your Sh#%

When you lose your sh#% it really doesn’t accomplish anything except you lose credibility and kids make fun of you behind your back. Keep things in perspective and if you do have a bad day or lose control, be honest with your kids and apologize. I have found that when you apologize to kids, it strengthens the bond you have and increases their respect for you.  

Establish Priorities

The most challenging students usually have several areas they need to improve, whether it is academically, socially, or behaviorally. If we try to fix everything, everyday, it will become overwhelming for us and, more importantly, for the student.  When we focus on too much we either don’t make progress or miss the progress we are making. Pick one area to focus on. Pick that area with the student, have a discussion of why that is the focus area and what success looks like. Celebrate the progress they make. It doesn’t have to be a physical reward. The prize can be what most students, and adults for that matter want….recognition for a job well done.

Start Fresh Everyday

It doesn’t matter what a student has done the day before, or every day before. Give them a fresh start every time the set foot in your classroom. Expect the best in them every day. When you believe in them, don’t quit on them; they will start to believe in themselves and become who you know they can be.

I have enjoyed covering classes more than I even thought I would.  I realized that kids are kids and when you treat them with respect they treat you with respect back. I realized that they want to be heard and when you take the time to listen, they have some important things to say.  I was also reminded that teachers are superstars. When you do it right, teaching is exhausting! Kids are amazing and have so much to teach us, but some kids are freaking annoying like I was! Just remember, these kids are the ones that need us most.

This realization made me feel better about my younger self. I was annoying, seemed confident, seemed spoiled, but most times–like Mr. S on that first day–it was an act. I was often self-conscious, scared, and dealing with things my teachers didn’t know about.

I thought Mr. S felt bad about flipping my desk and how he had treated me on that first day. He started to smile at me and went out of his way to show me he cared, but there was always a bit of distance between us. It wasn’t until years later when I was working on my father’s blacktop crew that I found out the true story.  

We were paving my former teacher’s driveway. That’s when Frank and Mr. S joked about the incident. Mr. S retold the story of how he called my father to tell him what a pain I was in class.  He explained how Frank came to his room to discuss my indiscretions. Frank walked in with his polyester gym shorts and tucked in polo.

“Your father smiled at me and shook my hand almost breaking it as he squeezed it.”

He went on the explain that Frank’s smile quickly turned to rage as he lifted the “old school” teacher desk, “you know, the big bulky heavy ones” and picked it up over his head and threw it across the classroom, causing papers fly and a legs of the desk to snap in two.  The rest of the blacktop crew looked skeptical, but Mrs. S followed with “No I swear he lifted the damn thing straight over his head. It was pretty scary! ‘The only thing he said as he stormed out of my room was how the [email protected]#$ do you like it?’”

I couldn’t help but smile. I knew it wasn’t appropriate for Frank to toss that desk, but it reminded me that despite my father’s faults he loved me and always tried to have my back.  

It also reminded me that we all love a child and we want them to be treated well, even when they are annoying or make mistakes. If we remember that, and treat every kid the way we want our own kids (or kids we love) to be treated, we will all be just fine!