What Should I Do about My "Problem" Student?
We’ve all experienced that “problem” student, the one who just pushes our buttons, who drives us crazy and makes us want to go home and curl up on the couch with a good book and abandon all hope. Who makes us feel like a terrible teacher. Sometimes this student is the child who lives in our home and shares that same couch. Certainly this varies from student to student and situation to situation, but when you run into a student like this, how do you avoid throwing your hands up in the air and throwing in the towel?
We presented this question to a few of our favorite teachers (and frequent CiRCE speaker), Debbie Harris, from Hope Academy in Minneapolis, MN; Jenny Rallens, from the Ambrose School in Boise, ID (and current PhD candidate at Oxford University); and James Daniels, longtime headmaster and teacher in several schools. Here is what they had to say.
Debbie: What you describe sometimes feels like most of the students in my classroom! The first thing students like this need to know is that you won't give up and throw in the towel. For them to know this, they need to see the teacher's unfailing persistence and belief that the child is capable of great things. Often, students who struggle behaviorally in the classroom, have not had someone really invest in them (especially someone who didn't have to, but did anyway).
Jenny: I am sure this goes without saying—I just think students need love. I have seen "problem students" become rockstar students, time and time again, just because they were loved. And I have come to find that most students receive love best when you:
- notice them, giving them attention that their humanity and individuality merits: eye contact, listening fully when they speak in class or out of class, saying hello in the hall, asking how their day is, noticing if they aren't ok and asking, telling them what you appreciate about them, saying thank you, spending time with them, being interested in who they are and what they love and valuing what they love and the particular nature God gave them instead of trying to make them mini-me's . . .
- don’t hold them to perfectionistic standards, which crucially includes letting them see that you are a flawed, fallen, broken sinner too (when I first started teaching I tried to be the perfect "role model" and when I started being more open about my own sins and flaws, my students responded with gratitude and hope), making space for them to not mess up
- give them affirmation and worth (honestly, of course) in every possible way and at every possible opportunity while simultaneously addressing sin and misbehavior
- say "I love you" and meaning it, being aware of how much students want to be loved
- are aware of how lavishing time and attention, approval, etc., on one student is something that never goes unnoticed
James: The best teachers don’t divide their students into the “good” and “bad students”. Conversely, teachers that don’t know how to vary their methods outside of the “how” they think and learn usually have the most issues with “problem” students. Classical education invites us to view every student with the dignity they deserve. Christian education calls for us to view every student as one bearing the image of God and to constantly be in awe, expectation, and wonder as we anticipate a glimpse of some particular glory in every student that walks through our classroom door.
More and more, I'm coming to see teaching as the act of bestowing worth on another human being
Jenny: I think the label "troubled" student is problematic because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have seen this happen more times than I can count. Also, hearing a student was problematic coming into my class pre-conditioned me to be suspicious of that student's actions and motives, and often I found that the problematic students to the previous teachers became my strongest if only I could have the eyes to see.
Debbie: I am immediately reminded of a student I have this year, who had significant behavior issues coming into my class. When I met her at our open house, she came in and upon being shown where she could keep her things, immediately began punching the cubby. She did not have self-control and certainly had no respect for rules or adults in general. When I described what I was seeing to a trained counselor, she recommended a therapy for me to do which helps children who have attachment disorders due to trauma and turmoil in the home. What made this therapy difficult was that I needed to make sure at all times during the day, that she was within 3 feet of me, or within arms length. As a teacher, I wondered how I could ever possibly do that! It felt like a last ditch effort, but nonetheless, we went forward, with that little girl right by my side, no matter what she was doing or who she was distracting. I just kept correcting and complimenting, giving her consequences and hugs, and never leaving her. By the grace of God, within a week or two, I had a very different little girl in my classroom. She is still struggling academically, as there are other things at play, but instead of angry belligerence she is loving, kind to others, and accepts correction without argument. Most changes are not that sudden, and sometimes we need to realize as teachers that we are just a part of the work, that we plant seeds. It may take years for that fruit to grow, and that is God's timing.
James: I’ve come to realize that I feel frustration and the tendency to quickly want to assign the “problem student” nomenclature in the most in two instances: (1) when I view what I have to say as the most important aspect of the classroom, losing sight of the fact that the lesson that I am presenting is not more important than the students in my class to whom I am teaching, and (2) when I am least prepared and not at my best as a teacher. When I am, or other teachers in the past that have been under my stewardship are having an issue with a particular student, I think is critical to start by examining the actual instruction (approach and method) going on in the classroom by the teacher first before targeting the student.
Jenny: Aren't we all problematic? The label sets up a good/bad antithesis that I think runs counter to the gospel: we are all desperately broken and utterly in need of Jesus. I was always one of the "good" kids and it took me a long time to realize that perfectionism and pride and sucking up to the teacher are just as "troubled" as stealing and hitting and being obnoxious in class . . .
Debbie: Heart issues take many forms, all of which need to be addressed. The students who do all academic things well often can have a resistance to seeing their own sinfulness and need. It can be very hard to build relationships with tough students, and I don't think there is any magic recipe other than seeking God's wisdom every step of the way. A teacher's own humility can open the door to bring change. In my experience, some classical schools boast about their rigor and how impressive their academic programs are to encourage enrollment, which has an impact on school culture and students for both good and ill. I think it’s key that all learning result in knowing God more so that we can worship Him. If we merely leave learning to knowing God more we can still be pretentious about how much we know. But if the end is worship, then we are made humble and He is made much.
James: In the end, if our students came to us having it all together – why would they need us? The more wayward the student, the more opportunity I have to pursue my calling as a teacher.
Jenny: More and more, I'm coming to see teaching as the act of bestowing worth on another human being (I need a different word than "bestowing" because God is the one who bestowed it, I am just recognizing it—maybe "affirming worth”?).
Debbie: Each child has their own story, but the language that reaches them is the relationship that the teacher builds with them. The most remarkable transformations I have witnessed are when I have seen teachers spend their own time taking kids hiking, or to a play, or to a baseball game.
James: Yes, this is one of the reasons that we should be focused on the idea of cultivation humanness in our teacher training versus just primarily focusing on methods and assessments. Additionally, unless the conversation regarding our goal of “cultivating wise and virtue in human beings made in the image of God” precedes our conversations about instruction and assessment, will be far more prone to center on “material“ versus the souls of our students. Only then can we begin to ennoble the student and, as Jenny pointed out, affirm the students’ identity and worth in Christ.
In the end, if our students came to us having it all together – why would they need us? The more wayward the student, the more opportunity I have to pursue my calling as a teacher.
Jenny: One last fleeting thought that has surfaced a few times as I've reflected on this question: one more problem with the category of 'problem students' is the implicit notion that we are there to 'solve' the problem. Maybe this is a particular temptation for younger/newer teachers like myself, but this 'problem/solution' framework feeds all my personal pride demons and savior complexes. I think it may have been on a CiRCE related Facebook thread where I saw someone recently write "Classical Education Will Save the World!" Cue lots of enthusiastic emojis and warm cheers in ensuing comments. But honestly, what a blasphemous statement. I say this as a person who has been quite pleased to set myself up as the solution/savior to the problem student. Only Jesus will save the world—and this sets me free to simply love the 'problem' student, not solve the student . . .
James: Well-said. I agree. Students are not problems to be solved or fixed but persons to love, guide, and point to ultimate Truth, which for us is Christ – once again attesting to the relational nature of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty versus some gnostic or sterile “ideals.”