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? 

5 Things I Want My Students to Know About Me as a Teacher

Olwen recently posed one of her fabulous thought-provoking questions.

What motivates you as an educator? What is it that you really want your students to know about you as a teacher? #KidsDeserveIt #inclusiveEd #pypchat #LeadLAP @ShiftParadigm @ChrisQuinn64 @mraspinall @mary_teaching @cvarsalona @burgessdave— Olwen (@notjustup2u) February 6, 2019

I was going to write a quick, agency-related reply, but then I got thinking some more and decided a blog post was in order.

#1: I believe in helping students take the wheel for their own lives.

I see myself as a guide, ready to help students make necessary adjustments and to help them discover possibilities they had not yet considered. I recognize that this requires sharing ownership over the learning space, honoring student voice & choice, and letting go of my need to feel “in control” in favor of messy-but-essential student-led planning.

#2: I want learning to be as authentic as possible.

Obviously, we can’t always go visit the Louvre to study the art in person, but thanks to the digital world, there’s so much more at our fingertips than our dusty textbooks and basal readers. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Studying mentor texts to learn their craft and technique rather than having drills about those techniques.
  • Exploring landforms using Google Earth or by going outside rather than having a powerpoint presentation about them.
  • Using real-world math problems rather than sticking with endless practice sheets.
  • Making connections by using provocations and focusing on big concepts rather than learning every skill and subject in isolation.

#3: I try to practice what I preach.

If I tell my students to be risk-takers, I want them to know how I’m working on it, too. If I expect them to write poetry, I will work to truly engage in the process right alongside them. If I want them to take action in their community, I will do the same. I never want to be that coach sitting on the ATV riding alongside runners!

#4: I love being a teacher, but I have a lot of other interests, too.

My family is the most important part of my life, and I have a lot of other passions that help me to feel happy and fulfilled, from biking to carpentry to urban planning. I want them to know this not only because it helps them understand who I am as a human being, but so that they also understand that I truly do love to keep learning new things.

#5: My foundation for “classroom management” is a blend of self-regulation, relationships, and humanity.

I am terribly imperfect at this, but it is something I strive for. I would rather put my energy in teaching students the tools to regulate their own feelings and impulses than to try and regulate them myself. I would rather sit on the same side of the table to have conversations with individual students rather than place all the blame on the student. I would rather work on finding a solution together rather than keeping them in from recess.

I hadn’t realized how important it is for students to really understand all these things about me as their teacher until I wrote them down, so thank you so much, Olwen, for the reflection opportunity!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

5 Opportunities When We Let Them Teach

The first portion of my 8 year-old’s parent teacher conference a couple weeks ago was student-led, during which she was able to share her desire to be given serious responsibilities. As a result, her wonderful teacher allowed her to teach a math lesson.

She came home brimming with pride–and with a new career aspiration. And I’ve been reflecting on the this ever since. I know that when I was teaching myself, I did not often provide these experiences, which is why I greatly admire teacher like:

I’m looking forward to implementing student-led workshops and lessons more frequently when I return to the classroom! Meanwhile, some benefits I’ve been able to see just from my daughter’s experience include the following.

Opportunity #1: Helps take down “secret teacher business”

The idea of dismantling “secret teacher business” has been thrilling and fascinating to me ever since my introduction via Edna Sackson’s blog. Allowing students to teach gives them insight on the bigger picture of school–the curricula, the planning, the constraints–which in turn can bring greater ownership and sense of purpose.

Opportunity #2: Helps them develop empathy

Among all the positive aspects of teaching, my daughter also observed, “Some kids were not very respectful.” When students are given the opportunity to direct the classroom, they gain new insight on what an enormous task this can be. While this should not be the only reason we pursue student-led endeavors, it’s certainly a wonderful benefit when students learn to see their teachers as human beings, too.

Opportunity #3: Helps them process learning in a new way

My daughter taught a lesson on rounding using a variety of strategies. This was a math topic she loved, but approaching it from a teacher’s perspective required her to use speaking & listening skills, in addition to her mathematical processing skills.

Opportunity #4: Helps them learn to take ownership

Especially when students are offered the chance to teach about a variety of concepts (including offering “non-academic” workshops), they can share in the learning plans. I especially love all the descriptions of teachers who allow students to opt-in to sessions, resulting a group of learners who actually chose to be there and learn that content.

Opportunity #5: Confidence-building

I loved the student feedback in Mindy’s post linked above. Especially:

student comment via blog by Mindy Slaughter

Student-led lessons are just another facet of cultivating student agency in our classrooms. What other benefits have you observed?

To subscribe or manage your subscription preferences, click here. Weekly blog schedule usually includes Inquiry provocations on Monday, #TeacherMom posts on Wednesday, and Learning Through Reflecting posts on Friday. 

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Inventorying a Culture of Agency at Home #TeacherMom

When I read Edna Sackson’s “Building a Culture of Agency,” my first thought was to bookmark it for when I return to the classroom.

But as another typical day progressed with my 3 small students, I kept thinking of Edna’s post. I realized I could definitely benefit from inventorying my culture of agency at home, not least because of how I’ve learned that more agency leads to less classroom management — and we could really use less “classroom management” in our home right now!

The questions in bold below are her overarching questions, to which she also attached sub-questions for more in-depth reflection (be sure to check out her post to read those)!

“What sort of language will you use?”

Overall, we have good metacognitive dialogue happening, including naming learning skills (“Wow, you are making an interesting connection right there!”) and referring to my students as authors, scientists, etc.

Two questions that stood out to me most as opportunities for growth were, “Do you talk about learning, rather than tasks and work” and “Do you ask the learners’ opinions and really listen to what they say?”

It’s so easy to get swept away by all the tasks that must be accomplished each day, and it becomes a temptation for me to focus on the work, as well as to multi-task everything. But I have noticed that when I do make time for undivided attention, it goes a long way in the culture of agency at home.

“How is the environment organised to foster agency?”

This one is always a work in progress, but overall, I feel like we’re moving in the right direction for agency.

“What sorts of opportunities are offered?”

Right now, I’d say that many of our learning opportunities come from the books my kids select at the library. For my oldest, she also has the choice to share her thoughts for a broader audience on her personal blog (see “In Which the 7 Year-Old’s Blog Post Gets More Comments than Mine“), Youtube (her stop-motion video-making is still going strong) and even occasionally here on this site when we co-write posts.

As I reflect on opportunities for my two- & four-year olds, my thoughts turn to games, blocks, Lego’s, play dough, and other creative experiences we could engage in together with more regularity. I think that especially as my daughter starts school again, I could renew the self-selected magnet schedule below for my 4 year-old to consider the possibilities for his time.

from “What Child Autonomy is Not”

“How is time managed? 

Self management of time has often been encouraged, and our approach is constantly shifting (especially to make sure my kids aren’t wasting their time “waiting for the teacher”). In addition to the magnet schedule above, we have tried…

…the week wheel:

from “Rethinking Calendar Time”

…general week/month planning:

…planning hours to scale (½ inch = 1 hour)

from “Agency is not just for school”

…digitally shared to-do lists:

from “No Secret Parent Business Either”

“What dispositions do you model?”

All three sub-questions Edna asks here regarding openness and vulnerability fluctuate with my emotional state. I notice that when I’m feeling stressed and behind-schedule, I am less likely to discuss my process with my kids.

However, my kids are merciful; when I share how I’m feeling, they tend to be patient. All the same, I would like to do more to explain my strategies for getting back on track so they better comprehend self-regulation.

“What routines are in place to encourage agency?”

I actually just recently added a visual prompt for our morning and bedtime routines. Secured to the bathroom mirror with packaging tape, these little pictures help my kids get on with their daily routines independently. 

“What kind of expectations are clearly set?”

We’re always having conversations about the importance of intrinsic motivation. But there’s definitely still a major learning curve for initiative over compliance. Part of this may be that initiative still looks pretty destructive for my 2- and 4 year old boys. But I am working to adjust my expectations and our environment to meet their needs.

Here’s a recent example: from time to time, we check out what’s called a “Discovery Kit” at the library, a themed box including new toys, books, puzzles, etc. We love playing with them, but it’s difficult for me to keep track of everything, and the fines for missing pieces/late dues add up fast.

One day I was telling my 4 year-old that I didn’t know if we could get another discovery kit because he had misplaced one of the pieces. Later, I expressed my concerns to my husband, and he thoughtfully said, “Well, he is 4. Maybe it’s just that the discovery kits require us to supervise them.”

Another option would be to stop borrowing the kits for now, but I see now that I would want to make sure my 4 year-old knew that it wouldn’t be his fault.

We have high expectations for responsibility, but developmental readiness must factor into those expectations.

“How do interactions foster agency?

I really like the question, “Can they tell that you trust them to learn?” It’s clear through his expression that even my 2 year-old can tell a lot about what I’m feeling about him and his choices. When I work to reassure him, especially when he’s trying new things, he grows in his confidence to act independently.

“What small action will you take to shift the culture in your class?”

Processing my thoughts through this inventory has been a great step for me today. As parents and teachers, we need to be honest but kind with ourselves in this process. Working with kids is messy, but as we work toward a stronger culture of agency, they will astonish us with what they are capable of!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

In Which The 7 Year-Old’s Blog Post Gets More Comments Than Mine #TeacherMom

Last week, my daughter came home commenting about a new bathroom rule at her school: all girls now have to use the restroom 2 at a time due to the fact that girls keep writing on the bathroom walls. As a teacher, I understand why the rule was implemented. As a parent, I understand why she feels frustrated.

Since she just recently asked me to help her set up her own “real blog” (ie, can be read by a real audience), I asked her how she would feel about blogging on the subject. She took to that idea right away — especially once we figured out the speech-to-text feature so she didn’t have to keep fretting about spelling (teacher note: I really like the way speech-to-text requires the kids to pause & reflect to figure out exactly how they will verbalize each sentence).

Once she had her post written, “Fair School,” I, of course, went ahead and shared it with my PLN.

She was amazed to watch the comments pour in, and even took action on a couple of their ideas. She has since shared the post with her teacher, and she plans to try and see if she can meet and then introduce her classmates to their custodian(s) to create more empathy (Thanks, Abe, and everyone else!!)

This has also led to a lot of discussion about how we can inspire people to do good things rather than just try to get them to stop doing bad things. Not an easy task for anyone, that’s for sure, but a very rewarding approach!

Once again, I have found this whole experience to positively reinforce the concepts of digital citizenship, flattened classroom walls, and #StudentVoice. When we provide opportunities for students to share their authentic voices on things that matter to them, powerful learning happens.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

The Magic of “You Can”

In an article on TED-Ed clubs this last summer, one tip particularly stood out to me:

“Don’t tell them ‘you can’t’ even if the idea is crazy, tell them ‘you can’ and you will see the magic.”

On the same day I read the article, I had also read about a boy who has invented a small device intended to save babies accidentally left behind in hot cars.

It’s clear from this video that this is a child who is told “you can” on a regular basis in a loving environment. But what if he weren’t?

The naysayers in Facebook comments on this story were abundant, insisting that this idea would just encourage lazy parents, or that it would be futile against extreme heat anyway. And while many of these people are just exhibiting the unfortunate behavior typical of those who don’t see themselves as digital citizens (ie, they enjoying the roles of anonymity, consumption, and sidelines over authenticity, contribution, and involvement), they completely miss the beautiful picture here:

A 10 year-old child has actually devised a prototype in an attempt to better the world around him!

It still makes me wonder, how often do we, as the grown-ups, shut down our kids’ ideas, though they might have potential for brilliance? With my own children, I know I can sometimes have a much greater tendency toward anticipating the mess and the the improbability and the disappointment.

The point is, even if there is validity in our grown-up criticisms (it will take forever to clean up; it won’t help as many people as you think; it will be way slower to do it your way), when a child exhibits any kind of enthusiasm, compassion, and initiative, do we really want to shut that down?

So again, I remind myself:

“Don’t tell them ‘you can’t’ even if the idea is crazy, tell them ‘you can’ and you will see the magic.”

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Choosing Courage Over Fear

It’s now been over three years since I’ve been in the classroom. Three years. And while I miss being in the classroom, I can honestly say that thanks to the many incredible teachers in my PLN, not a day has passed that I haven’t learned more about how to return to the classroom a better teacher.

A powerful example came recently when I read this thought-provoking post from my friend Abe (@Arbay38). One of his comments perfectly articulated one of my fears of shifting toward more student voice, choice and ownership:


The rest of his post greatly assuaged this fear, but I’ve continued to reflect on this question over the past couple of weeks. But then, he shared something else on Twitter — something so profound, that I think I can finally put this fear completely to rest:


This child has reminded me once and for all that the bottom line is doing what’s best for kids. Withholding opportunities for autonomy now for fear of future constraints is like refusing to build the ship for fear of future rough waters.

Isn’t the possibility that they may not experience this kind of autonomy in future classrooms all the more reason to help them cultivate it now? To help them reflect now why it matters, and how they’ll respond to its absence in the future?

Our students deserve the very best we can offer right now. And as we regularly ask them to choose courage over fear through risk-taking and the growth mindset, we can be the first to model that back: choosing courage over fear.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto