Best Response to ‘Bad Students’​

Is this you too?

I teach at a school. I’m smart, I learn fast. By the third week of the first term, I know which classes are going to be easiest to teach online and at the school, and which ones are going to be the hardest. In each class there are students who are funny, students who are easy to teach, and others who are giving me problems.

Which students do you think I focus most of my attention on?

At the back of my mind a scared voice makes certain statements:

  • “They are going to make things difficult”
  • “They are out to stop me teaching”
  • “This class is difficult to teach”
  • “These students aren’t teachable”
  • “These students are aggressive / rude / stupid”
  • “These students will laugh at me / not take me seriously.”

Every day, as the classes start, so does the scared voice. It tells me what to expect of that class, which students are going to challenge my authority, trip me up and make my lessons into a shambles. And guess what. The voice is right. Everything it predicts, happens.

It’s getting so bad that, at the start of the lesson, I am mentally fired up, ready to return fire, to give back what I receive and I make sure that I win. I have to win. Because I am the teacher. And I hate it.

But there is a way to get out of that trap.

How to get out of that trap

Even though it appears to be this way, the trap is not made by the education system, curriculum, tests or the school leaders, size of the classroom, the number of students in your classes, or how good their parents have been at bringing them up. All of those things are the backdrop to the scared thoughts that are playing a scene – in your mind.

Your reaction to challenges is happening in your mind. That’s good news. Because you can do something about it.

There are three steps to freeing yourself from the trap of reacting to challenges in your classroom. By taking these steps, you will also be showing your students how they too can free themselves from the trap of their thoughts and reactions.

1 Notice the nature of the scared thought

The scared thoughts that come to your mind, however compelling, do not always tell the absolute truth. There are deeper messages hidden in the subtext of those thoughts. The fact that you are hearing those scared thoughts is a sign that you need to grow in some way. It is up to you to read the subtext, and choose what you think, and how you will act in service of your students.

There are at least these two powerful influences in the classroom on students’ success; your expectations, and the student’s expectations. As an adult, you manage your expectations. As a role model, you can work with students’ expectations.

Your students have scared thoughts in their minds too. Even those who have supportive homes hear things like, “I am not good at …”, “Everyone else is better than I am”, “I don’t belong here”, “Nobody likes me” and many, many more. They hear them as emerging truths. They have not yet learned to deal with them as adults do, to read the subtext, to interpret and choose other thoughts that serve them better. But you can.

Why do this? Aside from the fact that your life is much easier when you choose which thoughts to pay attention to, which ones to re-interpret and which ones to ignore, there is one more powerful reason. Since you are a role model for your class, your words and behaviour influence your students words and behaviour.

Students’ academic results are connected to their habits; their words and their thoughts over time.

Students lifetime results are connected to their habits; their words and their thoughts over time.

You cannot directly change students’ thoughts, but you can choose your own. And in doing so, be a role model for your students to choose better thoughts that serve them.

Here’s the second step:

2 Re-frame

To re-frame means to frame something again, in a different way: re-evaluate, re-examine, re-think, re-assess, re-fashion, re-view, re-work…

Key re-frames:

  • Check your assumptions. Are they automatic?
  • Assume positive intention (at least for now)
  • Find an opposite / alternative thought
  • Seek the embedded request

If, at the back of your mind you hear, “They are out to stop me teaching“, you can re-frame this as a positive intention, for example to improve your communication skills as a teacher. The intention of that scared thought is to provoke you, in this case, perhaps to identify which students might need extra attention, and to prepare in a positive way in advance. Why? because it will help you to respond rather than react during the lesson.

If you hear the thought “These students are aggressive / rude / stupid“, you can ask yourself what makes them seem so. Assume that their behaviour is a request for you to do something different. Ask yourself:

  • What are you doing that triggers those responses?
  • What could you do that does not trigger your students?

Whenever you hear a scared thought, know that it is alerting you, bringing your attention to something that you can learn about yourself and the people around you. How might you re-frame this scared thought, “These students will laugh at me / not take me seriously.

Can you access the subtext? Try asking yourself these questions:

  1. What makes you think so?
  2. What is the positive intent?
  3. What assumption(s) could you make?
  4. What is the thought asking you to think?
  5. What actions could you prepare for the lesson?

I would love to read your answers to the above questions.

After noticing the nature of the scared thought and re-framing it, there is one last step to take.

3 Implement

Having checked your assumptions, assumed positive intent, found an alternative way of thinking about it, sought out and found the embedded request, you will have a new foundation on which to base your actions.

The third stage invites you to try out something new (even without knowing for sure that it will work) and keeping an eye and two ears open for the effect that your new strategy has, short-term and long-term.