So, let's face it. We all have them, seemingly unteachable students. They come in many forms:
- the passive/aggressive student
- the completely resistant student
- the perpetually off task student
- the "the world is ending" student
- the drama queen or king
- the suffer in silence student
- the "pretend to look busy" student
- the "excuse for everything" student
- the "it's your fault" student
- the "I am pushing your buttons on purpose" student
- the entitled student
- the "oh no you didn't" in your face student
There are probably others that I could list as well. We all have a particular kind of student that finds his or her way under our skin and threatens to rob us of the joy we have for teaching. I cannot think of a single year in my career when I did not have at least one of these precious ones in my class. I guess there never will be a year like that, and yet, for some reason the struggle never gets easier. It is so hard NOT to get frustrated when dealing with tough students, especially if they are the confrontational ones. I am probably wrong about this, but sometimes I think it is even tougher on us if we are language teachers because there is a very special environment we need to create in our classrooms with a very specific outcome that we need to reach in order to know that our students are acquiring language and becoming more proficient. The fact is that they cannot go home and figure this out for themselves like may be possible in their core classes. They cannot read a textbook, study, do the homework and then come up with the same results. So, what do we do with this student? As has been proven to me time and time again, my answer to this is: NOTHING.
I know it might be controversial for an educator to say that, but in my experience it is true. There is nothing we can do to change that student at all. She comes to our classroom with a lifetime of baggage, bad habits, and outside forces that reinforce bad choices from how they dress to how they interact with others, and that is not even mentioning anything academic. What I have learned is what has to change is ME. I have to reconcile to myself that not everyone can be saved. Gosh, it would be so nice, but it just isn't within my power. Instead, I have to change how I interact with this student. In fact, it is more likely that if I learn how to interact with her in a new way and she can see that the example I set is different than other teachers in her life, I could plant seeds of change. I cannot, however, change her deeply ingrained habits. Only she can do that.
So many times, I blow it, get frustrated beyond belief and then have to come right back to the same realization that I have learned over and over again by what Proverbs (considered the Book of Wisdom in the Bible) has to say about the wise man and the fool. For the sake of this context, that unteachable student is going to serve as my fool, at least for a moment, so I can discuss how to react to her. I have to be aware of her nature in order to effectively work with her.
The first thing that the biblical book of Proverbs has taught me is that a fool never listens to instruction. In fact, it suggests that you are wasting your time to try to convince a fool of anything. So, when I have to deal with a difficult student I try to keep this in the forefront of my mind. My goal will not be to try to win her over, but to be very clear about what the limits are and what the consequences will be if she chooses not to comply. In fact, sometimes I have to narrow those limits at times because she cannot function effectively without very narrow parameters. This may be something as simple as my limiting how personable or friendly I am with her to how often she is given permission to leave class. This principle helps me to remember that there is no amount of arguing that will make any headway with this student, so I must avoid discussion and arguments with her as much as is possible.
Another principle that I learned from Proverbs is that I can be the fool if I am not careful. Because tough students are highly skilled at knowing how to manipulate the adults in their lives, I cannot allow myself to be lured into an argument or allow myself to get emotional. If I get emotional, it is likely I am going to say or do something stupid or unprofessional and thus pour gasoline on the fire (plus get myself in trouble). I have to work to keep the principles of Proverbs very close in mind so that I don't slip into the role of the fool. Also, Proverbs mentions over and over again that the choices a fool makes lead to their destruction. As a teacher, I don't day dream about my tough students spontaneously combusting, but I do think that their choices lead to natural consequences that I don't need to create. They create them for themselves. My goal should be to stay steady and consistent. How that student reacts to the limits I create for her will define the consequences (good or bad) that she encounters. With students like her, consequences speak the loudest of all. I am not talking about consequences like detentions or phone calls home either. For example, I had a student once who was very disruptive and had an explosive temper. It took me a while to realize that what she wanted from me was for me to explode. When I finally realized this, I began to respond to her differently. When she would not comply, I would redirect her using a very soft, steady voice. She would immediately lose her temper and start raising her voice to argue why what I asked her to do was not reasonable. I would respond by staying steady and soft spoken, and for some reason this would just enrage her further. So, the natural consequence was her removal from class. She could not function appropriately in the learning environment. Doing this kept me calm and able to easily transition back to the other students, but also provided further evidence me, the administrator, herself and parents that her behavior was completely out of line. There was just no arguing that fact. Oh, but the self-control it took to get to that point, and in my FIRST year of teaching!
In order to further demonstrate the wisdom found in Proverbs on this subject without sounding too preachy, I found a link that focuses on what Proverbs has to say about the fool, so you can read and decide for yourself if you see comfort, wisdom or moral support in it. Some students are different from others and what I have also learned is that our tolerance for things ebbs and flows over the years. When we have more stress in our personal lives, we have less patience with our students, thus a stronger support net needs to be in place. At the end of each day, we still have to get the instructional part of our jobs done, so we have to have something that keeps those tough students in perspective, our tempers in check and the learning on track.
Whatever the source of comfort, guidance or wisdom is to us, we have to have something in place to keep us sane and hold ourselves accountable, too. This job we do is challenging and it never lets up. We have to protect ourselves, body, mind and soul.
Happy Coaching, friends!