When reacting to student behavior are you asking yourself the right question: “Has anything you’ve done made your life better?”
*This video contains graphic language*
In American History X Edward Norton (Derek) is a recently incarcerated neo-nazi skinhead. Avery Brooks (Dr. Bob Sweeny), one of Derek’s former teachers, visits him in the prison hospital. Despite Derek’s confidence in his racist beliefs and previous actions, when asked the question, “Has anything you’ve done made your life better,” he shakes his head no. This is the pivotal moment in the film as Derek finally realizes that everything he has done has not improved his life nor made things easier for his family.
There is a lot of preparatory work in education: teachers develop lesson plan, administrators create professional development, counselors review incoming student records, etc. However, as proactive as we try to be, sometimes decisions are reactive in nature, especially relating to behavior because it can be difficult to predict how students will behave, especially in middle school.
Derek was asked if his decisions made his life easier. I ask you if your decisions as an educator make your job easier? Or perhaps are you reacting to prove a point? Or responding to win? Or yelling to maintain authority?
Everyone knows that yelling at, belittling, and embarrassing students will not yield the long term results you are in search of. Yet, sometimes we do it anyway. If the outcomes we are in search of our improved relationships, increased instructional time, and higher student engagement, we must change the way we react.
We can use backwards design to identify what outcome we want to accomplish which will help provide clarity about how we need to react.
Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet when reacting to student misbehavior. Potential solutions include: ignoring the behavior and speaking with the student after class, consistent communication with parents, and collaborating with the student themselves on how to address “off days”.
Ignoring a behavior is not always possible if the behavior is disrupting classroom instruction. However, some students behave to get a reaction, so if you are able to ignore it, you are disarming a student.
No one knows a child better than the parent. Consistency is key with parent communication, because parents need to hear from you when their child is meeting expectations and when you need support. When a child knows a partnership exists between school and home, it can have overwhelmingly positive results.
Students are refreshingly honest. If you speak with them when they are not in an elevated state they can share insight on ways to de-escalate them.
When reacting to student behaviors keep the desired outcome in mind. This will help you make decisions that “make your life easier.”
With relationship building at the heart of any great educator, how is it possible to not take it personal?
Student behavior is erratic. When a child makes a poor choice, there may be no rhyme or reason for it. We must come to terms with the fact that there might not be a visible cause and effect relationship associated with a student’s behavior.
If you truly believe the previous paragraph then you are well on your way. However, some educators struggle with acknowledging that student actions are unpredictable. The reason we struggle is because teaching is an incredibly personal business.
Let us take a look at an example of how this comes into play.
I have an upcoming lesson on statistics. Prior to the lesson students used their Twitter accounts to post a multiple choice question to the student body on a current issue facing the school. Students used the data from their survey to create a series of graphs and charts that displayed their results. That information was utilized in a Google Slide presentation that students created using their own device or a school laptop. One of the required slides allowed the students to create 30, 60, and 90 day plan to address the school issue based on the data from the student body. Students presented in front of the class. Additionally, the principal was present and was able to hear student concerns and possible solutions.
Now let’s say that this lesson was designed specifically to give voice to students who have strong opinions about the school. If during the lesson these students were off-task, non-compliant, disrespectful, or put in minimal effort it is extremely difficult for the teacher to not take this behavior personally. But, that is exactly what he must do.
If we look at a slightly (gross understatement) more extreme example we see Al Pacino (Michael) having a conversation with the Corleone family about what to do with a crooked cop (McCluskey) and rival crime boss (Sollozzo). McCluskey and Sollozzo had just attempted to murder Michael’s father, Don Corleone. Taking all factors into consideration, Michael ultimately makes his decision based on what is best for the family business and not his personal feelings. The clip ends with the famous line, “It’s not personal Sonny, it’s strictly business.”
When working with kids, it is helpful to remember that it’s not personal. Even after planning lessons considering the teacher’s experience and relationship with students, there is an element of unpredictability that is a natural part of working with humans. We must not take these student behaviors personally. Whether we saw a student behavior coming or not. Whether there was a reason behind a student action or not. Whether a student acted deliberately or not. The students are fulfilling their end of the business, and you need to fulfill yours. Because when we do, it can alter our behavior towards a particular student or an entire class.
Every lesson increases the experience of the teacher and the bank of relationships that the teacher can then use when planning future learning experiences. It is challenging for teachers to put countless hours into lessons that differentiate for, motivate, and stretch students, and then not take it personally when the very students they are trying to reach throw it back in their faces. Although it is a near impossible task, deliberate attention to it helps to develop the resiliency we talk so much about building in students.
Students will push your buttons, get on your last nerves, and ruin your day. But each morning you must wipe the slate clean to provide every child with a fresh start.
In the 1993 comedy classic Groundhog Day, Bill Murray (Phil) relives the same day (Groundhog Day) over and over until he gets it perfect. The scene depicted in the clip above showcases Phil doing everything he can to give others the best day possible.
At this point in the movie Phil believes that he is cursed to relive Groundhog Day for all of eternity. Despite his grim acknowledgement of the situation, he is determined to help others. Knowing that the people of Punxsutawney will inevitably get themselves in the same trouble tomorrow does not prevent Phil from doing what is right.
As a middle school principal I am highly aware that adolescents have limited control over their behaviors and actions. In fact, if you ask any middle school educator why they love middle school, the most common response is because every day is different. Even though the majority of middle school teachers and administrators is acutely aware of the highs and lows of a middle school student, sometimes they have a hard time giving every child a fresh start each day.
Adding to the problem is the fact that middle schoolers lack self-awareness about the ping-pong nature of their emotions. When a teacher fails to provide a student with a fresh start it creates confusion, frustration, resentment, and anger in a student because they do not understand that the teacher is incorporating yesterday’s events into today’s treatment of them.
On the flip-side, if a student recognizes that an educator is willing to overlook their past behaviors each day, he is far more likely to form a strong relationship with that adult. Adolescents deal with an extraordinary amount of anxiety naturally. Removing the “will my teacher treat me differently because I acted like a jerk yesterday?” worry takes an unbelievable amount of stress off a child and allows them to be themselves.
Kids are going to make mistakes. Mistakes are an integral part of the learning process. Don’t hold those mistakes against them. Mirror Phil’s mindset and strive to provide each student with the perfect day. Even if everyday feels like Groundhog Dog, it may turnout to be your new favorite holiday.
Why not be the educator who changes how a parent views school?
*This video contains graphic language*
For a variety of reasons parents can be weary of schools, teachers, and principals. Maybe their educational experience was less than ideal. Perhaps, they have been taken advantage of as parents. Possibly, their child did not receive the opportunities they should have. Parents carry these negative experiences with them to teacher conferences, email conversations, and grocery store run-ins.
Helen Hunt (Carol) in As Good as It Gets has a son who suffers from a variety of medical issues. As a single, low-income earning mother, she receives the constant run around from doctors and healthcare providers. In this scene, Jack Nicholson (Melvin) , a wealthy author, sends his publisher’s husband, a doctor played by Harold Ramis (Dr. Bettes), to personally take care of Carol’s son.
Carol has a hard time comprehending the situation. She goes from nervous to angry to shocked in a matter of moments. She is unable to believe that this type of care is possible for her son. The years of neglect from the medical field has left her jaded and untrusting, rightfully so. Towards the end of the scene Dr. Bettes says, “Whatever I find out, I promise you, at the very least, from now on your son is going to feel a great deal better.” Following this comment, the camera pauses on Carol for a long time. She does not say a word. But, you can tell by her face that for the first time she has hope. Hope that her son will live the normal life every parent imagines for their child.
As educators we can get into a rhythm of making sweeping generalizations about students and parents. We can assume that we know everything about a family situation before meeting them. A 12:30 conference can be seen as a 30 minute inconvenience or an obstacle standing in the way of lunch. I ask that you stop treating that conference like a time and start treating it like a parent’s hope. Get to know your families. Learn how they got there. Gaining the perspective of the child’s greatest advocate can unlock additional pieces of the puzzle. I challenge you to be the one who tells a parent that no matter what experiences they have had in the past, “from now on your child is going to feel a great deal better.”
There are many lessons that can be learned from the late great Patrick Swayze, but none may be more important than “Rule 3” from his famous Road House speech. What may come across as obvious is frequently overlooked in education.
*The video contains graphic language*
If the choice was between being nice and being mean every educator would choose nice. The association between being nice and relinquishing control is where the the problem arises. I don’t know many teachers or administrators who will vocalize how they enjoy the power that comes with running a classroom or school, but they do. A common misstep is that educators will say being nice leads to an unruly classroom. Teachers will dig their heels in, stand firm, and refuse to give in out of fear that they will no longer be able to maintain control of their classroom.
As a teacher I found that I had received less concerned phone calls and emails from parents than my colleagues. There are many factors that played a role in that, but the most important one was that I was nice.
Being nice does not mean having low standards and letting students get away with things. It means greeting your students at the door, attending their after school activities, taking the time to listen to them when they have a concern, praising their participation, not letting having a bad day dictate how you respond to misbehavior in the classroom, admitting to mistakes you make (yes, apologizing to students), and smiling.
There is nothing Earth shattering in the previous paragraph. However, the more teachers I observe and the more classrooms I walk into, the more surprised I am to see that the practices are not always being put into place. What should be a collaboration between teacher and students becomes a power struggle between adult and child. There is a common sentiment that if a teacher apologies to a class or redirects a student with a conversation instead of a consequence they will lose control of the classroom. The exact opposite is true. Students work harder for you if they know that you care about them…………………and if they like you.
A student will go home and complain about a teacher if they feel like the teacher is targeting, controlling, or mean. Students will go out of their way to find a fault in a teacher that they don’t like. You might be reading this and saying that you do not care what parents or students think. I think that is exactly the wrong attitude. You should not let parents dictate how you run a classroom, but you should very much care about how students perceive you as a teacher. There are enough non-instructional elements that monopolize a teacher’s time. Why not remove dealing with frustrated parents from that list?
As a principal being nice applies the same way. Unlike teachers, a lot of my interactions are with parents instead of students. I make sure to respond to emails and phone calls promptly. When a parent is upset with a decision I made I don’t get defensive. I actively listen and give credence to their feelings. I greet them in carpool or the hallways with a smile and a kind word. Parents trust me with their children for eight hours each day. People are far more trusting and supportive of people they like.
At the end of the day teachers and principals are going to make mistakes. People are far more likely to forgive when they like you. “Being nice” is like purchasing insurance for those challenging times down the road. Eventually, it pays for itself.