I’ve previously written that student behavior is not personal. This is true. Pressure from students’ outside lives can erupt in class. Unprocessed grief can become disruption. Unfelt anger can become a refusal to participate. It’s important that we as teachers recognize the many external factors that can influence behavior inside a classroom.
While students do bring in issues from outside of the classroom, that does not mean our classrooms don’t have the potential to exacerbate issues. Many of us may remember classrooms from our own childhood where “getting away with” things was more interesting and engaging than the instruction being delivered. We’ve been there. So we shouldn’t frame student behavior as unrelated to the environment we create (or inherit) in our classrooms. Students are bringing in many years of experience in school, and many assumptions about what school is, and who we are. Sometimes, students enter our classrooms accustomed to un-engaging instruction that makes trying to “get away with things” more interesting than learning. This can come along with a de-facto “us vs. them” relationship with teachers, a dynamic that I have sometimes fallen into. Students may have developed this “us vs. them” mindset based on theirs or their family’s past experience with school, other educators, or other cultural factors.
Such a mindset is understandable. If we step back and look at the rooms we walk into every day, an absurd picture can emerge. When else, in what environment in human civilization, has one adult been put in charge of 30+ adolescents of the exact same age, and charged with the task of directing their activities (in ways they often do not find interesting) for six sedentary hours in a small room? Our schools — even sometimes their very architecture — often set us up to expend energy maintaining order, and this can be tiring for both children and adults.
I did not ask for a six hour, sedentary school-day. I didn’t ask for all the 14-year-olds to be put in a room far away from the 10, 8, and 6-year-olds who would provide them with such a useful opportunity to contribute meaningfully, care for others, and to teach what they’re learning. I didn’t ask for schools to put walls between students and the careers and environments they might find interesting outside school.
What I did ask for, however, was the chance to impact students and play a role in fostering their growth and development. Despite all the obstacles, from the mindset kids bring to schools to the structural constraints we ask them to operate in, I did ask to be a part of their lives.
If an us vs. them dynamic is the default for my students– I need to prove to them over and over that it is unnecessary, that they can trust me to keep their needs in mind. Students want to control their own time, bodies, and activity, and may perceive my directions as an infringement on their autonomy. If I can respond to that compassionately, from their perspective, I stand a much better chance of building the life-altering relationship that will get them to engage in learning.
I need to prove to my students that it’s worth it for them to give up their autonomy– a developmentally critical adolescent need—and engage with me in the learning process. They’re more willing to do that when they feel I understand their needs. So, how do I prove myself?
- Rather than cast the limitations of my physical environment under a defeatist pall, I can use them as an asset to connect with students. I can be on their side, acknowledging how the environment affects them. I take so much pleasure in the surprised look on a student’s face when they see I actually understand why they’re acting out.
- When a student acts out in my class — it’s not me VERSUS him. It’s us versus a difficult and somewhat unnatural situation that makes it hard for both of us to meet our human needs.
- When students are feeling constrained, I need to recognize the many different needs they have and embrace them. Students may feel the need to make their own rules. The need to work with their hands. The need to connect socially. The need for novelty.
Meeting students where they’re at means I have to ensure their needs are met. I need to recognize these needs as legitimate and acknowledge if they’re not being met in my classroom. If I can do something to change that, I should, and if I can’t (because there’s only so much running around you can do in a room full of desks), at least the student knows we’re on the same team.
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!