This article really hit on something that I’ve learned through experience. As teachers, we all have difficult students. They may have problems with behavior, bad attitudes, or a lack of desire to succeed. Whatever the issue, there are always students that seem to want to ruin our day, and we can’t help but cringe when they walk into the classroom.
At my last school, I had a particularly difficult student who had a rather notorious reputation and a desire to show everyone around her that she wasn’t going to be bossed around by anybody. She built up a solid week of detention and got sent to the office a time or two. It was incredibly irritating to me that so much of my time was being spent managing a student who seemingly couldn’t be managed, and she was constantly distracting me from doing what I needed to be doing, which was teaching the other 27 kids in the class.
And then it dawned on me. She was my new favorite student.
I didn’t have anything to lose, so I just gave it a shot. I treated her the way I would treat a prized pupil. I didn’t talk down to her. I overheard her talking to another student about a band that she really liked, and it just so happened that I had a good friend who was also a huge fan. I sought out opportunities to give her positive reinforcement and connect with her.
It worked. No amount of detentions would’ve changed this kid, but me changing my attitude toward her made all the difference in the world.
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Allen Mendler – January 10, 2013
Early in the school year, Mr. Spriggs asked me to sit in on a conference with his most challenging student. Jon rarely participated appropriately in class, instead drawing attention to himself by “accidentally” dropping books, suddenly having coughing spells and loudly expelling air from either end. It was considered a relative victory when his disinterest expressed itself more quietly through slouched shoulders, bored yawns and feigned sleep.
As the conference began, Jon seemed prepared for an expected onslaught of demands and nagging, defending himself with a steely downward glare and arms firmly folded across his chest. Mr. Spriggs opened the conversation by saying, “Jon, I just want to tell you that I am really glad you’re in my class. I know that it is not your favorite place to be, but I’m trying hard to make sure I’m the right teacher for you. I’ve tried many different ways to teach you, but so far they haven’t worked very well. I’ll keep trying so that you learn. That is what is most important to me. I want to thank you for being a part of my class. You are forcing me to be a better teacher, and that is good for me. If you can help me understand what I might be able to do that would make you want to be a better student, I would really appreciate knowing that.” Seeming surprised if not shocked by the absence of blame and expected vitriol, Jon appeared to relax and hesitantly offered a few ideas — such as not being asked to read aloud and being corrected in private — that led to an eventual meeting of the minds and vast improvement.
The Importance of Attitude
Educators often ask me for strategies that work with difficult students, and I have devoted a considerable amount of effort and creativity in developing these, filling up numerous books. I am still at it, too, since there is no one size that fits everyone. Yet I never cease to be amazed at the importance of attitude in achieving success with all kinds of students, but in particular, our most difficult ones. It is attitude that drives strategy. Like a house’s foundation or a car’s engine, attitude may be rarely seen but is often at the very core of how effectively things function. Rather than asking or demanding that Jon change his behavior, Mr. Spriggs wisely started the conversation by opening himself to change. Unlike conventional thinking that might have gone something like, “Things between Jon and me would be better if only he would/did_______,” this teacher changed his approach to, “Things would be fine between Jon and me if only I would/did_______.”
Let’s look at the attitudes reflected by this strategy:
- Your presence is important to me. (“I’m really glad you’re in my class.”)
- Not everyone learns the same way. (“I’ve tried many different ways to teach you . . . I’ll keep trying.”)
- We can all get better, including me. (“You are forcing me to be a better teacher.”)
- I value your opinion. (“What can I do that would make you want to be a better student?”)
A Simple Experiment
It is not unusual to think that if only others changed their ways, our lives would be so much better. For example, if only my students cared about their work, teaching would be great. If only I got more support from the administration (or parents or district or state education department), things would be so much better. Although there is nothing wrong with trying to improve our circumstances, as we all know, the only real control we ultimately have is over what we do and how we are. We are much more likely to influence change in others when we treat them as we want them to be rather than as they are. So for the next two or three weeks, try the following experiment that will require some tweaking of your attitude and behavior.