By Barbara Blackburn
I had a student who was a constant challenge, and I taught him for two and a half years!
Daniel came into my class with a reputation as a troublemaker, and in 7th grade he lived up to it.
By the eighth grade, he was trying to improve, but he struggled to move beyond his past behavior patterns and others’ preconceived notions of him.
A Student’s Turning Point
The turning point in our student-teacher relationship came when I discovered he had a talent for drawing, and I arranged for him to do some artwork for a special project. I was amazed at the turnaround from a completely negative attitude in my class the prior year to a positive attitude. In fact, if other students tried to misbehave, he would tell them to stop and pay attention.
By the end of the year, he asked to be on the school newspaper in grade nine, in part because I was the sponsor. Based on his reputation, our guidance counselor was reluctant to approve his placement, but I went to bat for him; and he was the best student editorial cartoonist I ever worked with.
My Biggest Mistake
I consider my work with Daniel to be my biggest mistake, because I wasted our first year together. I jumped to conclusions about Daniel based on our first day of class together, and it took me two years to move past that and build a strong relationship. I regret the wasted time, because I could have made so much more progress with him if I had started our teacher-student relationship differently.
Making the choice to not jump to conclusions is less about our students than it is about who we are as teachers. I’ve come to learn that the heart of being an exceptional teacher involves moving beyond perceptions to see the real student.
Are you interested in meeting student needs? You have to probe deeper than surface actions to determine what is driving the student to take those actions. Do you want to solve a discipline problem? You have to deal with the cause, not the effect.
Are you interested in being more successful with motivation? Then you have to suspend your prior beliefs about every kid who walks into your classroom and ask, “Who are you, who do you want to be, how can I help you get there?” The key is building positive, caring relationships with your students.
Discipline: Deal With the Cause, Not the Effect
Recently, I was waiting in the main office in a school when a young girl came in with a note to see the principal. She explained to the secretary that her band teacher sent her to the office because she forgot her flute. The secretary asked her why she forgot it, and she said she didn’t really know—that she just did—for the third time.
Intrigued by the conversation, I asked the student what she had to do in class when she forgot her flute, and she told me she had to copy definitions and read. I then asked, “So, you like doing that better than playing the flute?” She quickly replied, “Yes,” then she caught herself and said, “No, not really.” I asked, “Are you sure?” She seemed stunned, as if she had never thought about it or that no one had ever asked.
When I spoke with her teacher and shared our conversation, she also looked puzzled, then commented she had not thought about the reason for the behavior. She was frustrated with the student’s poor behavior (not being prepared for class), and jumped to the conclusion that the student was being disrespectful. She had not taken the time to look for the cause behind the behavior.
Isn’t that typical? We are so busy and caught up in all the problems, we jump to the simplest or most expedient solution. Then, we deal with the effect (the misbehavior) rather than the cause.
Identify the Need and Meet It
One day, Mr. Juarez told the class about a book he was reading in a graduate children’s literature class and that he had read the same book when he was in elementary school. Mike was surprised that Mr. Juarez had ever read a book outside of those he read aloud to the class, and he expressed even more surprise that his teacher had a personal copy of the book. Mike said he didn’t have any books.
Mr. Juarez probed further and discovered there were no books in Mike’s home. The only books available to Mike were those from the school. By not jumping to conclusions, asking questions, and listening, he discovered that it wasn’t that Mike couldn’t read; he simply didn’t know that reading was something you were supposed to do other than when you were told to do so in class.
Mr. Juarez then decided to buy him a book to help him see that reading could be a great outside activity. After another conversation, Mike admitted to watching old western movies on television, so the teacher bought him a book about cowboys. He also met with Mike’s grandmother, took them the public library to get a library card, and periodically asked Mike about reading.
The result? Mike is now a solid grade-level reader who enjoys reading.
Make a Personal Connection
A teacher in one of my graduate courses was frustrated by constant interruptions from several her female students. No matter how busy Ms. Wolfe was, these students always demanded her attention. Most of the time, their questions were not urgent and often they were somewhat trivial and repetitive.
In response to an assignment in my class, she decided to implement a stop-and-drop policy: She would drop everything and give a student five minutes when he or she needed to talk, regardless of the circumstances. Ms. Wolfe started this policy without telling her students.
On the day she began, one of the girls caught her en route to the copy machine and insisted on talking with her. For Ms. Wolfe, this first reminded her of all the other times that this girl had wanted to talk about trivial matters, but she remembered what she said she would do (stop and drop), so she walked the student back to her classroom to talk. The student confided that her boyfriend was pressuring her to have sex that afternoon after school, and she didn’t know what to do. Ms. Wolfe talked with her about the importance of not rushing into a decision, not making any decision based on pressure, and recommended that she talk to her parents.
That night, the mother called to thank Ms. Wolfe for taking the time to help her daughter. The mother was stunned—she had no idea that her daughter was even thinking of this—and she appreciated that the teacher helped the student to discuss it with her parents and make a different decision.
Seeing Beyond the Apparent
Look at each of these examples. Although you have a large number of students, you have a small number of students who need more attention; and it doesn’t have to be hard. I saw a bulletin board in an elementary school teacher’s lounge that said kids need the most love when they least seem to deserve it. I think this is so true. They actually need not only the most love, but the most patience and the most understanding.
One teacher made the decision to do this with Jorge. He was disengaged during class, preferring to slink into his seat and be ignored. Every time he came to class, the teacher asked him if he had his homework, how his day was going, and if he understood the content of the lesson (pretty standard questions, you might be thinking).
By the end of the year, Jorge was bringing his homework to class, volunteering to answer questions, and improving his grades. His perspective on the situation? “I started doing my homework so my teacher wouldn’t bug me; but then I realized I could do it, so then I wanted to.”
It would have been easy for this teacher to simply ignore Jorge, assuming that he just wasn’t a good student. After all, that’s how jumping to conclusions are—easy. But, as Norton Juster tells us in The Phantom Tollbooth, “You can never jump away from Conclusions. Getting back is not so easy. That’s why we’re so terribly crowded here.”
It is crowded on the Isle of Conclusions. We’ve all jumped to conclusions that we have later regretted. But, we can make the choice today to limit our trips there. We can choose to wait, ask questions, and try to understand each student before we make a judgment call. After making too many trips to that island, I’ve decided to follow Milo’s advice:
From now on I’m going to have a very good reason before I make up my mind about anything. You can lose too much time jumping to conclusions.”
Barbara Blackburn is a best-selling author of 15 books including Rigor is Not a Four Letter Word. A nationally recognized expert in the areas of rigor and motivation, she collaborates with schools and districts for professional development. Barbara can be reached through her website or her blog. She’s on Twitter @BarbBlackburn. Her latest books are Motivating Struggling Learners: 10 Ways to Build Student Success and the second edition of Principalship from A to Z, written with Ron Williamson.