Kim Bearden's book, Crash Course has been on my wishlist for professional reading for a few months. I've been wanting to read it since I had the opportunity to meet Kim face to face last October. However, I never took the time to actually purchase the book until recently. At the end of the year, my students showered me with Barnes and Noble gift cards, so I took the opportunity to snatch it up this week.
The first chapter, "Chemistry," is all about building relationships with students. As I read, I felt deeply connected with Bearden. I've been in many of the same situations with students who are hard to love. There have been missed opportunities on my part to connect with them, simply because I was exhausted at continuously battling with them daily. But, I should have taken a few extra moments.
Over 15 years, I've had my share of "difficult" students. Some have stood out as road markers in my career that have taught me huge life lessons.
Early in my career, one little guy, Joe, in my 4th grade class liked to challenge authority every minute of the day. If I presented an idea, his hand was the first in the air to challenge what I was saying or doing. There were many times, especially in math, where he would swear that I was wrong (I really wasn't). His social interactions with peers were difficult to say the least. He didn't pick up on social cues that showed him the boundaries of his interactions. He would argue, yell, name call, etc. Other students didn't like him, to say the least. When it was time for group work, it was difficult to find a group willing to let him work alongside. There were MANY hallway talks about what he needed to do and how to do it more effectively. In order to keep my sanity, I invited Joe to stay after school to help with a special project for the class in the upcoming week. During the time we spent together, we talked about class, behavior, etc. In addition, he helped put supplies together for the project - stapling booklets, organizing group supplies, etc. While we had conversation, he had a purpose.
What I learned: Dealing with behavior one on one is much more beneficial to me and the students. Stopping to take the time to walk into the hallway or talk after school, during recess, etc., prevents kids from being humiliated in front of peers. By inviting a difficult student to "help" with a project, it provides a sense of purpose and then there is a vested interest in the class.
Fast forward a few years, I was teaching 5th grade and had heard horror stories about the upcoming students from 4th grade. I waited all summer to find out if John has made it on my class list. I prayed that he wasn't, but in the back of my mind I knew he was there. It just made sense. John had spent the previous year checking out of class by sleeping. It was best, if he was awake, conflict would ensue.
John would yell at the teacher when he didn't get his way, yell at students, get physical at any given moment, try to sleep, throw things, etc. It was not what I signed up for, honestly, but it was what I had to work with that year. John tested the boundaries of my management. There were many days where I sat at his desk with my head in my hands, not knowing what to do next. I didn't feel like I was what he needed. I remember one particular incident that ended with me sending him to find another teacher that would accept his behavior in the classroom. (Not proud of that move) He ended up in the office telling our AP that no other teacher would allow him in their room because of his behavior. He was in tears. It was a turning point for sure. John craved boundaries, so I had to find something that gave him the illusion of power, but was something that I could live with too. So, I gave choices. For example, if there were consequences that needed to be given, I would let him come up with two possibilities that I could live with, I would give two possibilities, and then he would choose. We went on like this for the year and things did get progressively better. In addition, I discovered he was a talented artist and I found every opportunity in the world to allow him to showcase that talent. At the end of the year, at Awards Day, John was an emotional wreck. He cried during the entire ceremony and when it came time to leave he came to me and gave me a hug like I've never received. He was bawling, I was bawling and those around us were too. His words to me were, "I don't know what I'm going to do in middle school without you!" Talk about humbling.
What I learned When students are allowed to have a responsibility in their consequences, they take ownership of it. Finding something that students are good at and providing an opportunity to showcase it makes all the difference in the world.
To sum it all up, I strive to do the following with my kids each year:
1. Build a relationship by spending one on one time with each kid early in the year.
2. Find something that all students are good at and take time to showcase it through the year. This is especially important with the most difficult students.
3. Provide an opportunity for difficult students to have a vested interest in the class - give a sense of purpose.
4. Allow students to have a part of the consequence process by giving choices.