“How Tough Kids Can Make Us Better Teachers”

Edutopia has an article called “How Tough Kids Can Make Us Better Teachers” by Dr. Allen Mendler in which the author offers advice for managing the most difficult students.

When conferencing with the student(s), cover these points, or at least some form of them:

  • 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?”)

More advice:

“Start by thinking about your most challenging student (or class). How do you feel about this student, and how do you act? What comments or adjectives come naturally? Now think of your best-behaved or highest-achieving student (or class). How do you feel about this student, and how do you act? When you think about this student, what comments come naturally? When this student makes a mistake, how do you usually react? When you see this student’s parent, what do you say? For the next two weeks, act toward your worst-behaved or lowest-performing student in the same way you would your best student. Greet him the same way. Use the same kinds of encouraging language that you might use with your high-performing student. Treat her as if she has already achieved the same level of performance or behavior as your best-behaved or best-performing student — even if she only completes one problem out of ten. Bring the same degree of energy and pride. Try not to be dissuaded by what the student actually says or does. In fact, at those times try to focus on how his challenging behavior is helping to make you a better teacher.”

Some commenters don’t think this method is appropriate because it highlights the teacher’s weakness. I agree with Dr. Mendler’s advice because the teacher isn’t saying, “I suck. Tell me how to teach you.” The teacher’s saying, “Help me help you. Let’s work together.” And really, chances are, the kid(s) is being a pill because he wants attention, is bored, and/or doesn’t respect the teacher or authority. You’re still the teacher and still in charge, but it shows you’re willing to listen and be flexible. I do see the danger in showing any weakness, though. I think it’s best to go into the conference with the attitude of “Let’s collaborate” rather than “What I’m doing isn’t working.” There’s no weakness in asking students to collaborate with you. If you agree with Gary Rubinstein that all kids want to learn, then the “problem student” is going to likely cooperate and not take advantage of the situation.

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What teachers should and should not do

After I completed a practicum some years ago, high school students were asked by their teacher (my cooperating teacher) to list 3 things that good teachers do to help students learn and 2 things to NOT do. I have summarized and paraphrased their advice in my own words.

  • be nice and friendly, smile
  • be fun
  • listen to students (what they want, need, are confused about)
  • give examples and explain in depth (expectations, assignments)
  • stay on subject
  • be patient and don’t get mad
  • check to see if students need help by walking around and making oneself available
  • be nice but not too nice so that students won’t listen
  • don’t yell
  • do the homework or assignments yourself before assigning it to students (while I don’t think this is exactly possible, I appreciate the principle that teachers should ask themselves if they would be able to complete the assignment and if they would find meaning in it.)
  • don’t give too much work and give enough time to complete it
  • keep control of the class
  • be confident