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Thursday, February 5, 2015

Day 5: How Challenging Students' Teach Us #28daysofwriting



Last night as I was trolling through my twitter feed, I came across a retweet of the above.  It instantly sang to my educators heart because it is the most important lesson a teacher can learn about teaching.

Challenging students, tricky classes, and tough days at the chalkface can leave teachers drained, stressed out and wishing they had chosen a career less demanding.   I understand that.

There are some students that are very challenging.  I know this because I have worked with many students who have been on the cutting edge of challenging over the years, and each and everyone of them has taught me a little about myself, my teaching, my colleagues, my leadership and my understanding of humanity.  

Here are some of the main lessons they have taught me:

1. Relationships are KEY


It is irrelevant how many systems and structures you have in your class or in your school if you are unable to develop a relationship with a student who is challenging.   They know if you don't like them, and they know if you are pretending.  The harder you work to develop a rapport and a genuine relationship with your students that is based on mutual trust and respect, the greater rewards.   It doesn't mean there won't be tough days, but it does mean that you will be able to find a way to navigate the tough stuff together.


2. What you see is only the TIP of the student iceberg 


There is a saying that the students that need the most love are those that ask for it in the most unloving ways.  This, sadly, is very true.  Sometimes when you meet a student who is displaying behaviour that is deplorable in every way to how a civilised person might act in our society - swearing, spitting, throwing things and generally being quite disruptive to all they encounter - you need to set aside your our prejudices and judgements and look deeper.  Ask yourself, what is going on?  Why might this student be acting in this way? What is happening for them that I don't know?  Many students come to school every day all over the world carrying burdens on their shoulders bigger than we may ever know.  Abuse, trauma and mental health issues are a plague on our modern world.  There is almost always a catalyst behind a behaviour.

3. Behaviour management 101 is a very big book with many chapters 


One of the most important things I have learnt is that while there are general rules for working with tricky students, there is no one way that is better than any others, and what is best is to find the solution that works for a particular child or cohort.  It all comes back to relationships and knowing your students.  For some it is appropriate to have parents involved for others that could be a disaster.  Certainly, there are some golden rules that will make your life easier, like employing some active student agency tactics and by always being true to your word, but sometimes, thinking you can take a 'packaged programme' (I won't name any here in case I offend, and it includes my own) without looking at your situation, is not always that wise.  Remember, success looks different to different people.  One handy hint - ask the students what it looks like when everyone is happy in class, and how you might get there.

4.  It is not personal 


When a student who is under a great deal of stress loses control and inevitably says or does something that seems directly aimed at hurting you, or your feelings, please remember, it is not personal.  When a child is feeling trapped and pressured they will lose control and blow lashing out at what is closest.  Like previously mentioned above, when they do something that is most unloving, that is when you need to care for them the most.  Remember, it is the behaviour you don't like, not the child.

5.  Stormy behaviour eventually blows out 


Give it time.  Just like you are unwise to roam around outside when a major storm is blowing, so to, you are unwise to 'poke the bear' when a student has lost control.  Safety issues aside, if you can tell that no one will be hurt, let them finish and let the storm dissipate.  You can not reason with a student who is angry.  Once they have cooled off, they are often feeling worse and more than open to look at ways to mend things.  If you have worked hard on the relationship, this won't be hard and they will want to fix it.

6. Firm, fair and consistent is important 


Keep calm, be consistent and follow through, and always be fair.  Nobody likes anyone who is unfair and a bully, and children are particularly good at seeing through this.

7. Not all teachers are open to understanding 


This has been the saddest lesson.  Some educators, including leaders, are less open to finding ways to resolve situations for students who are challenging and are often too quick to suspend, punish and exclude from school.  Alternatives like ensuring a good school wide process, training for staff, pastoral care practices and looking into whats really going on for a student are too often neglected for the quick and easy write off.

8. They are worth your time and energy 


There is always a reason for why they are the way they are, and nine times out of ten, it was an adult that contributed to why they act the way they do.  They deserve your time and effort, and when you get a break through, it is more rewarding than anything else you do in education.

Finally, the children that are disruptive, challenging or just a bit quirky and outside the box teach you a lot about who you are are and what you can be as a teacher or leader.  If it is all you do in your career, please don't marginalise or write off these students are unworkable - hang on in there, get the support and skills you need and give them a chance.

It is worth it.

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