Be Firm and Be a Friend: How to Handle Those Difficult Students

I have stepped into many different classrooms with countless students over the years. Each room of kids seems to follow a similar pattern. The students that just want to help, they do everything they can to be the favorite. Then there are the students who sit in the back, keep to themselves, and try not to draw any extra attention. The ones listening intently to every word, but maybe not saying much. There’s always the students lost in their own thoughts of Minecraft or Fortnite, and the students fidgeting with things in their desks. There are so many different kinds of students you will run into in any given classroom, but there is always one student you will find no matter what. The kid that pushes your buttons and limits as far as he or she possibly can. 

I still remember the first encounter I had with one of these students, it was only a few years into my undergrad. I was in front of a fourth-grade class teaching a writing lesson, one of the very first full lessons I had ever taught. I was nervous as I stood in front of them, then took all of my excitement in me to exclaim, “Today we are going to do some fun writing!” 

A few students tuned me out, I knew it. Others paid a little more attention. One student, sitting on the front row smack in the middle as if he was purposely placed there to torment me yelled out, “WRITING SUCKS!” and had the whole class laughing within seconds. 

My little, tender, pre-teacher heart could not handle this. I choked back tears as I continued on with the lesson, ignoring his comment like I had been taught in my classroom management courses. “Class, who can tell me how many sentences make up a paragraph?”

“NONE BECAUSE WE DON’T WRITE ANYTHING FOR ANYONE.” 

His words crushed my soul. I made it through the lesson without crying, but their teacher could tell I was struggling because she pulled me aside at recess and asked if I was okay. I told her I struggled with this particular student and his comments. She sat me down and explained how he was testing my limits, what he was allowed to get away with around me. She told me the most important thing was that I needed to be firm, but also, be a friend. 

I took her advice and applied it the very next day. During the second part of my writing lesson, he thought it would be fun to hop onto his chair and dance for the class. I had to stand my ground and tell him that behavior was not appropriate in my classroom and that he would need to sit down. 

He didn’t listen right away, it took days and days of me repeating my expectations, removing him from the classroom, and calling on other teachers to assist. But slowly, we made improvements, he saw where I stood and started respecting that. Once we had somewhat mutual respect for each other, the friendship started. 

“Hey, Mrs. Ross, do you like football?” 

I can still remember him asking me that question in the hallway after school one day because it was the first interaction we had that wasn’t a power struggle between us. 

We proceeded to have a full discussion about football and he told me about his favorite college football team, BYU, and his favorite player, Taysom Hill. I asked questions and learned more about his passion for watching this game that I had never quite understood myself. 

He and I would chat often about recent games or the latest news with the team and even broaden our conversations beyond football at times. He would ask me about the latest news with my dog we were trying to convince our landlord to let us keep. At home, I would ask my husband the latest news on BYU and brush up on the current events with Taysom. Once we started building a friendship, the respect towards each other grew even further. 

This particular little boy was known throughout the school to be a tough student. Teachers in the hallways would try to reprimand him for bullying, running, and yelling to distract ongoing lessons, with no success. Eventually, I could give him one look, and he would know his behavior was not acceptable. Teachers throughout the school would ask me often what my secret was, how was I bribing him to behave? 

The truth was, no bribery was needed. This little boy needed one thing. Friendship. His teacher was in tune with him and knew which is why she advised me to do two things. Be firm, and be his friend. 

As I continued through my teaching career, I quickly found out that he wasn’t the only student like this that I would encounter.  I met many other students who attempted to push my limits and nearly bring me to tears, but at the end of my time with them, they always ended up being one of my favorite students because I spent extra time building a relationship with them. 

So next time you’re frustrated by that one student that always has a mean comment, or thinks it’s okay for her to crack inappropriate jokes during lessons, remember that it could be their cry for attention and love. 

Find out what they are interested in and truly care about it too. Ask them questions about the games they play and the friends they have. I’ve learned about college football, famous YouTube stars, Fortnite, JoJo Siwa, and more. They are all topics that have never been on my radar and most likely would not have if I hadn’t talked with them for a minute. Dude Perfect turned out to be more interesting than I ever would have expected!

At first, they’ll push you away and resist any relationship, it’s their defense mechanism because deep down they know they cannot continue to be the class clown if they start respecting you. But keep trying, be persistent, and just truly care about them and each of your students. 

I look back and think about these students often. I wonder how they are doing in school and genuinely hope that they have been passed along to other teachers that care about them as much as I do. I hope that they have someone to talk about BYU football and famous YouTube stars, because I know that’s the conversations they need to be having in order to learn about Shakespear and y=mx+b. I truly hope they are successful and that my short encounters with them made the smallest difference in their lives. In the end, that is the reason we are all teachers, right? 

Messy Beautiful Learning Happens When… #TeacherMom

…play is seen for what it really is: “the work of childhood.”

…children are permitted to make a space their own.

the desk of the 4 year old. Play dough, dinosaurs, magnetic letters, arctic animals, and some super heroes, all with an important and cohesive role for him.

…they are permitted choose to toss the instruction manuals, mix-and-match, and re-imagine what’s possible.

She decided to mix all the “sets” together to design her own city.

…they are encouraged to plan their time while also given the skills to identify balance and foresight.

…we stand ready to guide, shape, and support their inquiries, while also respecting their choices, voices, and sometimes messy ownership.

via Kath Murdoch’s blog

…we respect our students as the human beings they are, giving feedback grounded in relationships rather than judgement. (much less tidy than a clip chart for behavior, but much more likely to yield growth and learning).

What do you find to be the best conditions for messy, beautiful learning?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Do We Give Students The Opportunity to Show Their Best Selves?

I came across this incredible story this morning:

As moving and remarkable as this story is, it makes me wonder: would this kind of response be unique to just that group of students? It seems to me that this highlights the broader goodness that is inherent in our kids, if only we give them the opportunity to rise to and express it.

And what does that take? Clearly, this teacher has taken the time to form a relationship with her students. She describes a classroom environment of shared ownership as her students step up to write on the board and pass out papers as she’s confined to a wheelchair.  She gives them the opportunity to find and share their authentic voices.

Of course, it’s easy to lose sight of these things amid all the obstacles we face as teachers. Pressures of time. Pressures of curriculum. And, like in the circumstance of this Detroit kindergarten classroom with 38 students this year, pressures of resources.

We can and should do what we can to fight for improvements in our schools. But even as we wade through these limitations, we can always find opportunities for student voice/choice and agency.

This might take the form of:

  • inquiry-based learning and provocations to help them make connections and discoveries.
  • regular class meetings in which students help address issues and express concerns/suggestions.
  • Authentic problem-based learning in which students investigate personally-relevant issues.
  • Less dependence on contrived-learning (ie, boxed or computer programs that take the person out of personalized learning), and more meaningful co-constructed learning experiences.
  • Teaching them ways to positively harness the power of social media and digital tools (rather than solely focusing on cyberbullying/safety).

As we work to find ways to give our students their voice and ownership, we will be astonished again and again at their ideas, their empathy, and their capacity to lead as the next generation.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

5 Reasons To Prioritize Relationships Over Content

It is the relationships that separates schools, not the content.” 

What makes the above statement from George Couros true? What makes the quality of relationships within a school so defining?

1. Content is available everywhere: Khan Academy, Google, tutoring software. Our secret weapon as teachers is our rapport and responsiveness to students’ needs. As such, we should challenge anything that seeks to twist our role from responsive guides to automated deliverers (we must remain agents that purposely wield the textbooks, tech, etc. to meet students needs — and not become pawns being acted upon by such resources).

2.Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” If you have somehow missed the phenomenally inspiring video from Rita Pierson, you’ve got to check it out. Our students will remember the way they were treated in our classrooms for far longer than any clever science lesson or math worksheet. While 180 days may seem long, if you do the math of an average class of 25-30 students, that only gives us 6-7 days per student to prove to them that they matter and belong in our classrooms.

3. It improves classroom management, which in turn increases time for learning. Edutopia recently shared an article based on 700 teacher responses on “5 Principles of Outstanding Classroom Management.” Guess what was on that list of top 5? Yep, building relationships. And when those relationships are secure, when they know they are seen and heard and belong, they are more willing to trust us as we guide them toward their learning.

4. It improves our modeling efforts. If we want our students to see themselves as readers, as writers, and mathematicians, as scientists, we need to model what exactly that looks like. As Lucy Calkins writes in her 10 Essentials of Reading Instruction, “Learners need teachers who demonstrate what it means to live richly literate lives, wearing a love of reading on their sleeves. Teachers need professional development and a culture of collaborative practice to develop their abilities to teach.” Such modeling is only successful if students have a desire to exemplify what we demonstrate, and that only comes through strong relationships.

5. It creates an atmosphere of greater authenticity. Especially for our students who struggle against “the game of school,” changing the rules by focusing on people first is powerful. Our students start to learn to trust that they can truly show up for the learning each day, because they will be seen and valued.

What are reasons you have found to justify the time required for prioritizing relationships?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Ode to a Newly Crawling Baby #TeacherMom

“We call the early years formative. What is firing the brain? It’s nothing less than a sense of self. How does it feel to be me? How does it feel to be human? That’s what’s forming. Our sense of self and our sense of the world.”

via Case Wade

I see your joy. You sit up with a straight back, surveying the world from a perspective you’ve never seen.

I see your deliberation. You make a bee-line for the dog bowls every time we set you down, already knowing that if you do so stealthily enough, you’ll find a prize.

I see your intensity. You move from room to room and object to object, patting, squeezing, raspberry-blowing, all with an astonishingly palpable focus.

I see your relentlessness. You already possess an uncanny sense for the moments your parents most need a break, and will do just about anything to ensure you have our undivided attention.

“Learning isn’t having an agenda. It’s forming associations, recognizing when they discover. When they put things together they’ve never put together before.”

Most of all, I see your connection-building. You are already laying the foundation — with a magnitude I can scarcely comprehend — for the learning that will take place for the rest of your life. These connections, these moments of comprehension, are like golden threads criss-crossing all over our home, constantly reinforced as you feel your way across them again and again.

“The most important ingredient is the people who interact on a regular basis with young children. A baby does something, and the adult response to what the baby’s doing. It’s this back and forth responsiveness that’s absolutely essential for brain development.”

That I am an integral part of this process is humbling. You are reminding me of the connection between learning and relationships; of the need to learn when to set down the lists and sit down with the people. In this way, you are strengthening my ability to connect with those around me — as a parent, teacher, and human being.

So, little one, although I wish you’d sometimes slow down, I look forward to all we will continue to learn together.

Quotes from the documentary, The Beginning of Life, (streaming on Netflix) by filmmaker Estela Renner.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Sitting On The Same Side of The Table: On Student Accountability

We’ve seen the signs.

stop-parent-sign

We’ve said to ourselves, “Been there!”


And we’ve typed out responses like, “Preach!”

Because student accountability is tough. But it’s also one of the slipperiest slopes in education.

On the one hand, we have a desire for/belief in students’ ability to grow, and expectations for responsibility.

An example of the reasoning in this camp includes when author Jessica Lahey says with regards to the above parent stop sign, “Childhood is a continual, long-term process of learning how to make our way in the world, and parents who short-circuit that education by rescuing their kids are not doing them any favors.”

On the other hand, we have a desire to both exemplify and show compassion, patience, and developmental understanding.

Outspoken advocates in this camp include Alfie Kohn when he states, “A pair of studies by researchers at the University of Texas and New York University confirmed that parents who “attribute greater competence and responsibility to misbehaving children” are more likely to get upset with them, to condemn and punish them. Such parents become frustrated by what they see as inappropriate behavior, and they respond, in effect, by cracking down on little kids for being little kids — something that can be heartbreaking to watch. By contrast, parents who understand children’s developmental limitations tend to prefer “calm explanation and reasoning” in response to the same actions.” http://www.alfiekohn.org/blogs/high-low/

Amid the missing papers, messy desks, and forgotten lunch ID numbers, it’s easy in our exasperation to want to point across the table at that little human’s deficiencies. To implement stricter consequences. To put up more posters on students taking responsibility.  In other words, it’s easy to put it all on the children in front of us, sitting across from them instead of “sitting next to” them (see Engaged Feedback Checklist below) to look at the issues together.

I don’t necessarily believe there’s never a place for the sentiment or action displayed in the above photos in specific contexts. BUT at the same time, I wonder how the culture in our classrooms would be impacted if these kinds of posters plastered our schools instead.

Like Brene Brown’s Feedback Checklist (this one had a significant impact on my attitudes and practices the year I decided to display it in my classroom):

brene-brown-feedback-checklist

Or this profound reminder to us all:

made-them-feel

Or even just:

good-day

Yes, student accountability is messy. But I think we do a better job navigating it if, instead of trying to create one-size-fits-all zero-tolerance policies, we choose to simply accept the messiness and focus on the relationships.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Come back next Friday for another “Learning Through Reflecting” post. Read here for the rest of my weekly blogging topic schedule/background.