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Dysfunctional Classes, Part IV: Oppositional Students and Relationships
In the fourth part of his series on dysfunctional classrooms, John Jensen writes about dealing with difficult, oppositional students.
Oppositional students. Given a reasonable outlet for positive energy, most students will use the opportunity. These slowly become your allies as you call on their perspective with the Consult, welcome their good feelings with Appreciation Time, record their feedback with communication skill tallies, and make their academic effort successful. A common perspective develops in which students think, “It’s better now,” “I feel safer,” “We’re treating each other good,” and so on.
Still, it’s likely that a few will retain attitudes that overtly or subtly buck this improvement. You may already know who they are because they rankle. Something about them gets under your skin. You may observe gratuitous, unprovoked inconsiderateness toward others, or deliberate interference with your attempts to teach, and can’t pin down what they’re thinking. I’d like to make a guess about these students as a group.
A few in any class are likely to have an exaggerated sense of their own importance. Along with idiosyncratic qualities in this mind-set due to their personal experience, they somehow chose the common solution of declaring themselves above and beyond anyone else’s control. They may show it in evasive ways such as lying, avoiding, delaying, and passive-aggressive behavior, but also more assertively by interrupting, insulting, disobeying, ridiculing, bullying, independence from common rules, and criticizing. Such students often carry their maladaptive attitude into their adult lives even if they moderate the means they use to express it, resulting in slow sabotage to their progress.
The issue is important enough to bring principal, counselor, teacher, and parents to the same table. While it’s good to find ways to ameliorate specific conflicts, a central attitude change is the long-term issue. Together adults need to find a way to convince the student that he/she is not in charge. For those still physically manageable by their parents, Martha Welch’s book Holding Time is a valuable resource, explaining how, by holding a child, you can re-instruct them in the appropriate parent-child power relationship.
For a ninth grader who already weighs 210 pounds, an alternative is to shut down their life until they get the message. They have no independent time, no video games, no TV, no time with friends. At school, they become the assistant principal’s new sidekick, stand and watch while others have recess or free time, eat lunch alone or with adults. School staff and parents must be on the same page about the urgency of this direction: This child has a life-destroying disability. We must exert maximum effort right now to turn it around. Sure, it inconveniences everyone, but that’s fair. Till now, everyone failed at getting this message into his head when doing so could have been easy.
If you made your initial contact with parents as I suggest above, this followup will be received well. Parents typically experience frustration similar to the teacher’s, and now you’re their ally, helping to figure out how to turn their child around.
Your personal relationship with students. The actions I suggest above may, for one reason or another, seem alien to you. I suggest them first because you can choose to do them or not fairly quickly. If they’re so incongruent that you can’t see yourself doing them, we might look deeper not at your students but at you. Our first concern is your belief system.
Back in the 1960s, a study by the University of Florida asked entering college freshmen to identify their best and worst K-12 teachers. Those named were approached and invited to participate in a study about teaching. The intent unspoken was to find out what made the difference between the two sets. Again, these teachers didn’t represent just your general spectrum of ability. They were unanimously named best or worst, yet almost all measures the study applied didn’t distinguish between them. Best and worst appeared to know and do about the same things and had comparable education. The startling difference that turned up eventually was in their belief system. On some twenty dimensions, the poor teachers had negative beliefs where the good teachers had positive ones concerning self, students, the world, and the teaching task.
The implication is that every negative label you place on a student has a negative impact on him independent of your action. You may be doing approximately the same thing as a great teacher, but students can tell what’s in your heart. If it’s frustrated, angry, depressed, helpless, or indifferent toward them, we need to find a way to change that. Your attitude toward them will be the first cause they encounter when they enter your classroom.
You may think that this facet of your makeup is set in stone. “I am who I am,” some say, “and don’t try to change me.” If you’re convinced that you have to be negative and don’t want anyone to talk you out of it, then you should probably find work where you don’t deal with people. But if you’re amenable and would like to modify your belief system, I have a suggestion.
I came upon it when I started my own small school many years ago for 8th-10th grade students who were unwelcome in the public system. They weren’t your most cooperative to start with, and issues arose continually. I realized that I had to find a way to deal with their misbehavior in a way that didn’t place me in opposition to them. What could that be?
My solution was to recognize in their misbehavior itself something I could respect. Sharp tongue? He’s got a feel for words. Interrupts? Wants to participate. Laid back? Easy to get along with. Takes over everyone else? Potential leader. Slow to participate? Wants to get things right. For anything students do, they have to use a capability. Distinguish it from its current misuse, make clear to them the part that you respect and appreciate, and help them problem-solve how to use it more constructively. You’re frank about the good, the potential, the capacity you see, and now the only challenge is making it fit the situation. In that frame of mind, you’re better able to develop a stream of positive things to say about any student so that they grasp quickly that you’re on their side.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
References. “At Manual Arts High, a caring teacher is at the end of his rope,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 24, 2011, and also, “A Teacher’s Worst Nightmare, “ Walt Gardner, Edweek, Sept. 27, 2011.
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