Sunday, October 18, 2009

4 Difficult Students and How to Handle Them

Have you ever noticed that it seems the harder you push back against difficult students, the more resolute they become? As strange as it may seem, resisting difficult students strengthens their behavior. Any first year teacher knows that no amount of scolding, detentions, whatever, work? It 's like they get on a destructive path and their egos become committed to seeing it through, sometimes to the point of expulsion from school. Even then, they will say the teacher or the principal had it in for them.

They complain to family and friends that their teacher doesn't like them. It may even be true. I had teachers who did not like me. It did not stop me from getting a begrudging A in their class anyway. Now we all know we cannot change anybody. We can only change ourselves. We know this,but somehow it doesn't stop us from trying anyway.

A strange thing about human behavior is that the more we try to change a person, the more set in their ways the difficult person becomes. So give it up. Someone said the definition of insanity is continuing to do the same things that never work.

At the same time, teachers cannot allow anarchy in their classrooms. Here is one approach to the dilemma. “Fighting” difficult students only makes them more difficult, so turn their behavior to a productive purpose.

1. The one who argues and loudly
After butting heads with Jeremy, a seventh grader, a few times, I realized he was simply argumentative. One day as he was warming up to another major class disruption, I took him out into the hall.

“What's up with all this argument?” I asked him.
“I not arguing,” he answered. “I'm an independent thinker. I have my own opinions about things.” (With that I knew he had come out of some of that phony critical-thinking curriculum that's out there, mixed in with some of that phony self-esteem stuff). I started with his own words.

“Okay, the whole point of education is to teach people to think, so I am really happy you value thinking and want to learn how to think. Of course, people need to develop opinions, but people also need to be able to logically defend their opinions.”

“That's what I'm doing, he rejoined. “I'm defending my opinion.”

“Well, actually what you are doing is just repeating your opinion, only more loudly. With every repeat, you get louder and louder until you are shouting.”

Jeremy nodded.

“So here's the deal. The way you defend you opinion is by showing with facts and logic why your opinion is justified. For example, if I have a silly opinion like smoking cigarettes is good for health, just because I can say that louder than you can does not make the opinion right. Being an independent thinker does not mean be able to shout down everyone.”

Jeremy nodded again.

I went on. “Next time you feel your opinion is being challenged, find one additional fact or piece of logic and share that in a voice lower than mine. That will also help your classmates learn to defend their opinions. Can we do that?”

Jeremy agreed. “We'll have a secret symbol. When you are starting to get loud, I”ll put my finger to my lips. Then you will know you are falling into your old habit, okay.”

It worked. Not instantly, and not without a little backsliding at first.

2. The one who throws your words at you.

This is the student who prefaces an objection with an accusatory “but you said...” or “you didn't say...”
Double challenge: when his buddies back him up. Sometimes the student is honestly misremembering. Sometimes the student is hoping that since teachers talk so much, day in and day out, you will not possibly remember what you said. (Interestingly, this amazing audio memory of students does not seem to help them with tests). Sometimes you really did forget what you said.

Getting into an argument about what you said or didn't say is pointless. You need to know what you said. Most the of the time, the student is objecting to your enforcement of a class policy or points lost for not meeting one or more criteria of an assignment. You prepared by not only clearly verbally presenting the class policies and assignments, but also every students has the policies and assignments in writing. Calmly point out the relevant chapter and verse.

If the student is still being difficult, and especially in the company of friends, you may want to separate him from his support group to have the discussion. Or you may realize that the students are expressing a sense of powerlessness. Then discuss the objective of the policy or assignment, get agreement with the objective, and SINCERELY ask the students how they would like to go about reaching the objective. Finally, sincerely consider their views, and possibly modify the policy or assignment.

3. The one who complains all the time.

Make these students your eyes and ears on the classroom. Students observe all the time that stuff goes on right under the noses of teachers and the teachers don't do anything about it. I once had a pair of students extorting money from their classmates everyday for weeks right under my nose. I knew something was going on. I once observe one student passing money to another. The body language was off and I asked what was going on. The victim said he had borrowed money the previous week and was paying it back. Students do not understand that teachers may have suspicions, but they usually they have to catch the perpetrators before they can do anything. The students almost always know about the problem for a long time.

The foregoing was just an example. Some students complain about all kinds of things, some trivial, some serious. Very often, their complaints have a measure of validity and it is very distressing to be blown off as “disgruntled.” We all have heard bosses dismiss a worker's complaint with an airy “You can't pay any attention to her. She's just a disgruntled employee.” So enlist the complainers as your confidential insiders and have them report to you directly. Take what they say seriously.

4. The one who resists authority
This student does not want to be ordered around. Truth be told, none of us wants to be ordered around. We all resent it. We especially resent orders whose only apparent reason is “because I said so.” If education is partly about passing on a democratic society and democratic values, taking an authoritarian stance creates dissonance, and sometimes even hostility. An authoritarian approach, especially if perceived as arbitrary, disrespects the students. Some of these students stereotypically see all teachers as representatives of offensive arbitrary fiats.

See point number 2. Give them autonomy. Surveys have shown that autonomy is a number one predictor of job satisfaction. When the boss says, “Here's what needs to be done. You figure out how to do it and report back to me,” employees are happy and motivated. Students enjoy the respect autonomy bestows. If you are talking, for example, about an assignment, tell them, “Here are the requirements of the assignment because here's is what the assignment intends to accomplish. You are welcome to accomplish the requirements of the assignment you own way as long as you meet the following conditions...”

Sometimes, making the effort to avoid catching them doing wrong pay great dividends. In one secondary school, 85% of the students smoked. Teachers had lunch duty for the express purpose of preventing the students from smoking. Some of the teachers took great delight in catching the kids smoking.

Now, I hate cigarettes. I grew up with heavy smokers and to this day I have persistent respiratory problem I attribute to all the second-hand smoke. When I had lunch duty, I would walk around singing. Needless to say, I did not catch very many kids smoking. Students repaid the favor with their in-class behavior.

Finally, look for opportunities to catch your students doing right, and compliment them PRIVATELY. Don't imperil their street cred or expose them to accusation of being “teacher's pet.”

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