Yet another school year began for me on Monday (which at least means that now I have a more legitimate excuse to wake up at 4:00 am). Between the professional development sessions, department meetings, and lesson planning, I had more than enough on my plate to kick off the year. It’s worth noting that this particular year will be a bit different, as I am going to be teaching two high school level ESL classes.
“Cool,” I initially thought to myself. I’ll get to deal with some familiar old faces from the middle school, but take the learning to a different level.
But when checking my roster, a certain student’s name appeared.
“I wish you luck,” one of my colleagues pitied me.
“Yeah, she’s can be a real bitch,” commented another.
“Boisterous.” “Overtly Sexual.” “Bad influence.” These were just some of the adjectives used to describe this student from my fellow teachers who had already encountered the girl (let’s call her “Student C”). Grrrrrrreat.
Though I had yet to come face to face with her in person, I couldn’t help the stream of negative thoughts that ran through my head. Ugh. Here we go. Just what I needed.
I recently had Student C in my first class in the morning two days ago. And it went more or less how I expected. Rolling eyes. Snarkiness. Refused to participate in the icebreakers. And that attitude! … ‘The hell is this girl’s problem? *Sigh*
As much as I love teaching (and I do), I’ll be *really* honest here… every so often, there is a student who is a true pain in the ass to deal with. Life would be so much easier without them in the classroom. Why they have such a rotten disposition, why they are so rude, so mean-spirited and malicious is beyond me. Yes, sometimes it has to do with their homelife, their parents, a lack of support, etc. But in a school like mine, a school of children of the elite 1 percenters, where they have all the resources and help and attention in the world to avail of, sometimes it remains a mystery.
At this point in my teaching career, I am finally starting to be able to separate the virtues of being respected and being liked. I also know that I cannot permit myself to spend my finite amount of time and energy on a student who simply doesn’t give a damn. As a helpful reminder, I have compiled a list of tips on how to deal with a difficult student:
- Wipe the slate clean (yes, really)
Not just every school year (you’d be surprised how much a student can change over a summer break, especially a tween or a teenager), but with Every. Single. Class. As much as it sounds like a bunch of BS, each day is (hopefully) a new day for both the student and the teacher. You never know.
Also, don’t entirely prejudge a student based on their rep from another teacher. I’ve had cases when a difficult student has been fine and dandy in my class, whereas they are the bane of another teacher’s existence. And vice versa, of course. The point is, sometimes it pays to give a student a chance each class to do well. Sometimes.
- Don’t try to appease him/her with excessive praise.
Don’t get me wrong, positive reinforcement for correct behavior is great, sometimes that is what can aid in turning a kid around, but excessively commending a difficult student for minimally doing what they should be doing can appear patronizing to that student and possibly unfair to the other students who consistently do well. Throwing empty praise directed at a bad student reminds me of a quotation that I once read by Winston Churchill: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping that it will eat him last.”
- Pick your battles…
There seem to be more than enough opportunities to bust a student like Student C for not doing what they ought to, or simply for being a royal pain in the neck. But seriously, am I going to send a student to the office for excessively, exaggeratedly sighing in class? I think not. What would my office referral look like? “Student rolls eyes in class too much”? Sometimes, for sanity’s sake, and to not continually disrupt the class over minor infractions, use your judgement…
- But don’t allow major stuff to slide
Especially when it affects another student- that crosses a MAJOR line, a point of no return for me. A difficult student who is being cruel or bullying another student is a major NO-NO in my class, for which I WILL call them out on it. Moreover, blatant demonstrations of disrespect toward me (such as cursing or insulting) or others WILL result in a serious consequence. For this reason, I am very grateful that the administration and principal at my school are both supportive of me as a teacher and the times when I do choose to get them involved. This is fundamental in terms of my ability to handle incidents like these appropriately and consistently.
- Perfect your “Teacher Face”
Ya’ll know what I’m talking about. The LOOK. It’s taken a while, but I’ve personally honed my own teacher look over time, including by sometimes needing to bite the insides of my cheeks at times to get it down pat.
- Don’t take it personally
I’ll be the first to say that, at least for someone with my type of personality, this is not easy. But it is essential. IT’S NOT YOU. Some students, frankly speaking, are just bad news, thorns in your paw, or simply jerks. I used to allow myself to be affected by the difficult students that I had to the point that the janitor in my school thought that I was pregnant, because she kept finding vomit in my classroom trash can every day. Yes, I sadly took it to that unhealthy an extreme. In retrospect, it wasn’t worth a second of what I put myself through.
- Don’t allow him/her to drain you or take away from the rest of the class
At least in my case, the vast majority of my students are pleasant, respectful, and are in my class not just because it appeared on their schedule, but because they genuinely care and want to improve their English. Those are the students that I am more than willing to care about and help in any way that I can, and they are totally worth my time, attention, and energy. And you know what? THEY deserve every bit of it.
- Acknowledge that some students will never be “savable”
There, I said it. There are unfortunately some students who will never turn around, no matter how much effort you put into treating them respectfully and attempting to instill some amount of knowledge (or manners) into them. And sometimes the reason is not always apparent. All you can do is utilize classroom management as best you can, and carry on with your lesson. Just as the old adage goes about bringing a horse to water, it’s the same with a student who is simply unwilling in every sense of the word.
At the end of the lesson that day, the other students smiled and said, “Thank you.” Meanwhile, Student C was the first one to bolt out the door without a word.
Two school days down. One hundred seventy eight more to go!