“There’s a fight in the library!” It’s 2 pm, and Chelsea is standing on the faded asphalt, yelling. Our principal, Ms. Benjamin, shoots up from her desk and pops out her door onto the quad, wondering how a fight could possibly be happening in our “library,” a bookshelf-lined freight container with barely enough room to turn around. But the two students wrestling on the blacktop are not fighting. They are rehearsing for a scene in their self-written play.
Based on student interviews of eyewitnesses, the play revolved around a student who was tazed by a campus officer after a fight that broke out at a neighboring school. In the play, characters stopped the action to discuss why the student was acting out.
“Does anyone KNOW this student?” yells the student playing the school psychologist.
“Wait, I think his brother died last week…” says the student playing the security officer.
“Did he get any counseling? Did anyone call the parent?” asks the school psychologist.
My students’ play reminded me for the millionth time that student behavior is not exclusively about us as teachers. Students are bringing frustrations into our classrooms that don’t necessarily revolve around us– projecting onto us issues with their parents, with authority, with life in general. Unprocessed grief becomes classroom disruption. Unfelt anger becomes refusal to participate. Often times, we as educators allow our assumptions, biases, or even mood to influence our perception of students. In this situation, we were ready to assume the worst about the situation. In the classroom, in a moment of frustration, it’s easy to become totally focused on what I need from the student, and forget that the student may need something too. These assumptions can often prevent teachers from building life-altering relationships with students.
This is why, in my adaptation of a No-Nonsense Nurturer® consequence system, the second consequence after the warning is for the student to sit outside and write a note for me about what is going on for them today. By having them write a note, I’m asking them to explore their feelings and I’m showing them my interest in what’s underneath the surface. This simple act of asking “Are you ok?” can diffuse many frustrating situations, and the student usually returns to class, contrite, with a note in hand, ready to get back to work.
We can create positive relationships with the students that we find most difficult if we truly listen to these students’ frustrations and seek understanding about the need behind them. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of context. Like when students are disruptive because they’re bored (which means I need to engage them). Or perhaps because they don’t see their friends as much as they like. These kinds of frustrations can build up over time, so it’s important for me as a teacher to recognize that student behavior doesn’t have to be about rebelling against my expectations. This behavior is usually just a misguided attempt to meet a legitimate need.
Often, we approach a problem-solving conversation focused only on what we need from them, but students can smell when we have an agenda from a mile away. We’re a lot more likely to get what we need if we at least seek to understand what they need from us first.
By Liz Gore, Teacher
Leadership Public Schools Richmond
Ms. Gore is one of the educators featured in the No-Nonsense Nurturer Online Course, one part of our comprehensive solution for ensuring teachers establish a culture that supports student success in even the most challenging classrooms. Click here to contact CT3 about enrolling a group today!