No more “problem” students

I was recently reading a post by a friend and it immediately got me wondering, “what are the actions and behaviors of students that teachers find annoying? How did I view and react to them before, versus now?” I agree with the premise that there are just things people do that irk others, including the most well-intentioned teachers, and I think it ought to be a given that we treat those kids (and colleagues) with respect, regardless. But it got me wondering…

Before this year, I’d say that the behaviors that annoyed me were things like kids who bullied other kids, kids who were fidgety, or whiny, or smart-asses. Now I’ve got students who sexually harass others, use aggressive/intimidating language toward each other or teachers, and refuse to cooperate. I think, before, I would have just seen these things as annoying behaviors I needed to tolerate, ignore, constantly address, or navigate around.

I now have a different approach, and am struggling against tolerating behaviors that get in the way of their learning or the learning of others’, and I’m struggling against indirect or passive-aggressive approaches of discipline. So, instead of saying things like, “Max, stop talking.” Or, “Max, I’m waiting for you to stop.” Or, “I see Abby sitting the smart way.” (Those last two wouldn’t cut it in high school anyway! Haha).

Teachers always have rules in their rooms, usually that magic number five, and include things like, “respect people and property, raise your hand and wait to speak, stay in your seat when working, do your best work always.” But there is a lot unspoken in that short list of what we really expect and know kids need to do to be “good” students.

So, instead of doing that list of rules, I taught students about their rights and responsibilities as students in a NYC public school, using the blue code of discipline book as an official document. Using this document shows them that my job dictates what I need to do and what I expect from them; it’s not personal. You, Stevie, are not expected to sit quietly and listen during the lesson because I asked nicely or authoritatively, or threatened to move your name to red. It’s not something you owe me because we’ve developed an “understanding”. You are expected to do that because those behaviors are required for learning to happen for all in this room.

After discussing their rights and responsibilities, we discussed how hard it actually is to always live up to them, and how there are behaviors that get in the way. I then asked them to name those behaviors (see chart below). I then had them discuss the kinds of things they could do in place of those behaviors (after they admitted, in part, that those behaviors come from not knowing what to do in class, or it being hard to focus). We then agreed upon a list of responses that I would give, to get them back on track.

This was a big shift for me — I now could no longer ignore those behaviors, or just give “teacher looks” — I needed to make them aware of the behaviors they were exhibiting and make apparent to them what behaviors were expected. So, I had to say things like, “Jim, right now you are throwing papers at other students. The expectation is that you are reading the whole time. You need to do that.” If he refused, or tried and failed, we went to the next reminder, and often make our way to the behavior conference where they reflect on the actions, what was causing them, and how to address them.

This is really challenging because we’ve been trained as teachers to avoid these kinds of kids, so as not to provoke them further, or because we “just don’t know what to do with them anymore”, or because we have the idea that it’s hurtful, maybe, to point out to them what they do that makes learning hard for them, or because we’ve been trained to think that just exerting a certain kind of authority, or having a certain kind of relationship with the kid contains those behaviors is enough. But the problem with this is it hides from the kids the kinds of things they need to learn to fix, and it hides from them what “annoys” teachers and why. Creating a social contract in this way empowers students to identify, self-correct, and help others to correct these behaviors—not just because you create this document, but because of how you then use it and teach them to use it.

So, it’s no longer just this vague list in my head of behaviors that are okay, and behaviors that aren’t, so that kids get labeled or label themselves “good” or “bad”, depending on the response they get from me for whatever they happened to be doing. There is a clear list of what’s expected, and students are challenged to self-correct those behaviors and learn to self-regulate. Now the challenge for my class is getting them to engage in shared regulation, where they are saying things to each other like, “talking during the lesson interrupts the lesson and gets in the way of my learning, so please stop.” We’re not quite there yet, but the maladaptive behaviors kids have learned as ways to avoid learning or avoid feeling stupid, or whatever, are becoming minimized and increasingly isolated. Together, we are creating new social norms and expectations they can hold each other to.

The way I see it is those behaviors will always exist because we are just starting to unearth years of “I’m a bad kid and this is what bad kids do” beliefs, but there are no more “problem students” in a fixed sense.

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4 thoughts on “No more “problem” students

  1. Your approach will ultimately enable the students to change their behaviors because they own the problem. Whereas, imposing rules and “teacher looks” only serves to (sort of) manage the behavior temporarily. It’s exhausting and frustrating, because the students do not take responsibility for what they’re doing. By creating the list with them, they can see how their behaviors impact their own learning! You are SO smart!!

  2. This, I love. It keeps the power struggle and button pushing out of the equation. Thank you for the post! Wonderful timing, as I let my buttons get royally pushed today…..

    • Thanks! One thing I am doing now, when telling them they need to move their seat is, “So, now we’re at the third consequence; you’ve been having a hard time self-correcting [your behavior], so now you need to move your seat to someplace where you can focus and be successful today.”

  3. Wow…….this is truly “the change that I’ve hoped for”. Good luck. I hope all your students truly benefit from their remarkable teacher, as I’m sure they will.

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