Friday, June 02, 2006

Dialogue on Disruptive Students

Elementary History Teacher and DCS had an exchange of comments in my last post, and I began to write my own comment in response. The comment was getting so long, however, that I decided to make it my next post. Don't worry, though; I will get back to the myths.

Here is Elementary History Teacher's comment:

I explain to my students every year my title is teacher not learner. I teach and they learn. I cannot learn for them. I can provide opportunities for them to learn and I can provide different methods for the learning but they have to do something. There are a growing number of students today who do not respond to any of my invitations to learn. They prefer to disrupt, threaten, and commit violence. Their actions negate their right to be in the learning environment because they threaten the success of others.

Here is DCS's comment:

I can understand and agree with much that everyone is saying. Let me just say that that even though most teachers are dedicated to their profession and their students, there are teachers in the classroom who disengage their students on the first day. So do parents. I know because I've seen it first-hand.

Kids say things that are inappropriate and not well thought out. As adults, we must be careful not to take everything personally. Many kids go through stuff today that we adults never had to experience at their age.

If a student told me that I failed, I'd ask him why he thinks that. Sometimes there is something else going on with the student that really has nothing to do with you.

Finally, to Elementaryhistoryteacher - I get your point. However, let me say this: I hope teachers as a group understand that lifelong learning is important and that we can all learn something from our children. Kids have a way of getting to the heart of a matter very quickly and offering fresh perspectives on issues. They can also sense quickly when adults don't respect them.

Even as the parent, I have always allowed my children to speak their mind about anything, as long as they do it with respect. If there is an outburst of angst, where I'm accused of something, I'll ask my child questions to see what's going on with her. Often, it's something that has nothing to do with me. Sometimes I have goofed. In those cases, I apologize. Apologizing doesn't make me a weak parent.

As someone who has worked one-on-one with students failing in communication arts, I have found that many of these children act out but are actually great readers. With these kids, I look for creative ways to engage the student first - which often involves listening. I don't judge them. Once we have established rapport, it's easier to get positive outcomes from these students.

As an educator and a parent, I make a point of trying to look at situations as if I were a kid. In addition, if my child and I disagree about something, I explain my position from the vantage point of an adult. Often, my child will tell me that she never "thought about it that way." Again, I think we adults must remember this: "It's not always about you."

And now the old guy's two cents worth:

In DCS's comment, there is nothing I can point to and say, "That's wrong!" DCS has such an impressive knowledge base and everything she writes is so well thought out that I try to avoid arguing with her. I'd much rather argue with people who don't know anything or who shoot from the hip. Then I get to win once in awhile. Nevertheless, I do have a different perspective than her in dealing with difficult students.

There is nothing more frustrating for me than having a really disruptive student in class. DCS says in her comment that there are things some of these kids have to go through that we never did, and I know she's right. But it's so hard to keep that in mind when one of these students is destroying what you are trying to do in a classroom. DCS also says that teachers need to realize that it isn't about us. I would like to put up a front of righteous indignation, and pretend that I've never thought that it's about me, but I have to admit that there have been times when I've been guilty of taking things personally. Nevertheless, the thing that is foremost in my mind when I am in front of the classroom is to teach the 25-30 kids that I have in that room. It's not just about that one disruptive student, and it's not just about me; it's about the other students in that classroom who are being hurt by what that disruptive student is doing, and what they are missing out on because of all the attention I've got to be giving to him.

Before I go on, I do want to say that I have had some successes in dealing with disruptive kids. One of the highlights of my career involved a kid who was classified as EBD that I had in a basic class that I taught three years ago. He failed the first quarter, and was a constant irritant in class. By the fourth quarter, however, he completely turned around. He was earning As and Bs, and he was THE positive leader in the class. I can remember showing a video, and when it was over, he said, "That was really a good video!" The other students nodded in agreement. I have no doubt that if he had said it was lousy, that would have been followed by a chorus of, "Yeah, that really sucked!" from the rest of the class.

I think there were four factors that caused this student to turn around the way he did: 1. He was a basketball player, and he realized that if he didn't pick it up, he would be never be eligible. 2. Once he started making an effort in the class, he realized it was possible for him to do quite well. 3. There were no other disruptive students in that class, so he had no one to feed off. 4. We had a great social worker who met with him regularly.

I wish I could say that I have succeeded like this on a regular basis, but that is not the case. Very few of my disruptive students have ever turned around.

I have a great deal of empathy for Elementary History Teacher, because it sounds like she has had a number of disruptive kids to deal with this year. There have only been a couple of times during my career when I've had more than one or two really disruptive kids in one of my classes, and those classes have truly been nightmares. If there are three or four really disruptive kids in a class, they will inevitably drag along three or four other kids who wouldn't be any problem if they were in another class. The class becomes a circus as six or seven students try to outdo each other with acts of sneakiness and misbehavior, and it is almost impossible for any learning to take place. Normally, I love seeing my students out in the hallways before and after school and in-between classes. I thoroughly enjoy joking with them, chatting with them, or just saying, "Hi!" to them, and hearing them say, "Hey, Mr. Ferm" in return. But when I had those nightmare classes, I would actually feel embarrassed anytime I saw students from that class that actually wanted to learn something. Then I did feel like I was failing, because I was letting those students down. It was very difficult for me to feel understanding or sympathy for the kids who were destroying that class.

I am thankful that I have had so few classes like that, but I know there are teachers in some areas of the nation who go through that class after class, year after year. Quite frankly, I don't know how they do it.


Blogger DCS said...

Dennis: I am glad you wrote this post. Perhaps it appears in my initial comment that I underestimated the effect disruptive students have in the classroom. If I gave anyone that impression, I apologize. I also apologize because I'm about to write another lengthy comment.

I do realize how frustrating disruptive students can be. I also understand why teachers want to pull their hair out if they have several disruptive students. It seems that when there are several, they feed off each other. They annoy well-behaved kids.

Without question, you and Elementaryhistoryteacher have much more experience in dealing with badly behaved children than I am. Teachers who spend a whole career in the classroom and make a difference with kids are saints!

Now that I've said that, allow me to say this: I believe that no student sets out to be disruptive. No child comes to school to fail. Parents don't send their children to fail.

Many kids who succeed in disrupting a class have leadership skills, but they use them in a negative manner. It may take lot of effort to turn such students around, but it can be done. I've seen it done. It takes a lot of patience, perseverance and prayer! It also requires that we believe in students even when we want to wring their necks.

(I have also found that integrating character education into the curriculum also helps - getting kids to internalize positive values and articulate what values are important to them.)

Pedro Noguera is a NYU professor and author who previously taught at Harvard and the University of California at Berkley. He told me an intriguing story about his days as deputy mayor of Oakland, CA.

As deputy mayor, Pedro found himself responsible for education - a job no one else wanted. One day a principal brought a young man to Pedro's office. The kid was clearly disruptive and rebellious in nature. The principal told Pedro that he had appointed this kid student body president. Pedro thought the principal was kidding, but it became clear that the principal wasn't joking.

The student, who never expected to be student body president, took his position seriously. The principal taught the student conflict mediation skills. He also enlisted the student's advice and assistance in reducing the number of fights and other disruptive behaviors. The principal recognized that other students looked up to this rebel.

After becoming student body president, the student changed. His chains came off. He stopped sagging his pants and put on a belt. The kid stopped fighting. Instead, he broke up fights. He mediated conflicts among his peers. The incidents of fights and other disruptive behaviors dropped.

The student, who previously seemed destined to become a dropout, ended up going to college.

I've had kids in my life who have acted out so much, I wanted to wring their necks. I held them accountable for their behavior, but I also did something that they weren't accustomed to. I told them that I believed in them. I didn't stop reprimanding them when they behaved badly. However, I also told them about their strengths. I described the type of people they could become if they put their minds to it. It's amazing how children live up to what we think of them.

Can we save all kids? No. It's much easier to invest our time in the "good" kids. But I believe the biggest payoffs come when we inspire "public enemies" to become productive adults.

6/03/2006 1:32 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

DCS, I feel like I'm at a disadvantage in our dialogue on this subject, because I'm confused about how extensive your classroom experience is. I have the impression that you are very familiar with classroom situations, but you're not a teacher. I don't mean to pry, but could you explain that.

Also, the young man you describe reminds me of my EBD student who became a leader. In both of those situations, success came when we were able to deal with those students one on one. I'd be interested in your thoughts on dealing with those situations where there are a number of disruptive kids in the same classroom.

You put a great deal of emphasis on high expectations for troubled students, but you also mention holding them accountable. I agree; this would be a great recipe to help these kids become productive. The problem is that accountability means there have to be meaningful consequences for bad behavior. Generally speaking, I think that right now classroom teachers in public schools lack the ability to impose consequences that are truly meaningful to disruptive students. And I think that is a major problem.

And finally, feel free to go as long as you want on your comments. You bring an interesting and intelligent perspective to these issues, and you really make people like me think.

6/03/2006 3:34 AM  
Blogger the anonymous teacher said...

I really like that comment: "No child comes to school to fail." I think that's so true and something we should all keep in mind.

Dennis, Through these posts I'm beginning to understand your position more and more...Although I'm still leaning towards my idealist first-year teacher opinion that I can save them.

6/04/2006 11:23 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Anonymous Teacher, I've obviously never seen you in action, but from what you've said, I wouldn't ever want you to change. In our school, we have a shop teacher, Jeremy Culleton, who is amazing with the kids who give me nothing but headaches. He is somehow able to develop a great rapport with them, and he gets them to perform. What an asset he is to our school. You sound like you are able to do the same kind of things, but probably in different ways. He says he can handle those kids, because that's the way he was when he was in high school. I doubt that's why you're good at it, but whatever works. Every school needs different teachers reaching different kids in different ways. I think I should probably try to move a little bit more in your direction, but I know I'll never be a Jeremy or an Anonymous, but I don't have to be to be a good teacher in my own way. But as for you, like I said at the beginning of this, don't ever change! Teachers like me are a lot easier to find than teachers like you and Jeremy.

6/04/2006 2:19 PM  
Blogger the anonymous teacher said...

thank you so much, dennis. that means a lot to me.

6/04/2006 8:41 PM  
Blogger DCS said...

Dennis: You are right. I am not a classroom teacher. I have worked with teachers and students for years, both professionally and as a parent volunteer, and I have an academic background in education. But I have never managed a classroom on a daily basis.

What I have done is serve superintendents in school districts, work in the executive office of an education consortium advocating for some 70 school districts, and cover education in radio and TV news. I've also worked in parent engagement for a nationally-funded education initiative. A lot of my work involves research. In short, I've had dual careers in education and communications.

I am familiar with classroom situations because I've been in lots of classrooms over the years, providing support to teachers, principals and students. I've worked on committees advocating for special education. I've conducted training in the area of character education. I also have experience as a leader in Boy Scouts and as a leader in an inner-city youth ministry.

I think it's good for teachers to stay abreast of research and best practices in the area of classroom management. Certainly, maintaining order in classroom is much for challenging now than it was 20 years ago.

What concerns me is that I've walked into classrooms where teachers lose control of their class on a regular basis. I don't make it a practice of interfering, but on one or two occasions, I did "take over" for a moment to regain order in the classroom. In those cases, I had the teacher's permission to do this.

I may not run a classroom, but I do have some recommendations for teachers faced with several misbehaving students in one class:

1. Be consistent in utilizing your skills in classroom management.

2. Keep disruptive students separated. Change the seating if you have to. You may have to do this more than once.

3. Don't be afraid to ask for advice. Use guidance counselors as resources. Sometimes they'll have information on students they can share. There are times when you may have to involve a principal or another colleague. If you have inmates attempting to run the asylum, don't feel as if you have to handle the situation alone.

A few years ago, I met a man who served as discipline coordinator for an elementary school. Teachers who had serious disruptions in their classes could send the misbehaving students to this man and immediately go back to teaching.

4. Moderate a classroom discussion about the disruptions. Let the students express how they feel when someone misbehaves during class. Allow classmates to offer suggestions on reducing such disruptions. Make sure the discussions don't turn into overzealous attacks on any particular student(s).

5. Keep parents in the loop. Many kids who act out still get nervous when you call Mom and Dad.

6. I came across a game that elementary school teachers might want to try. It's called the "Good Behavior Game." Learn more about it by clicking here.

7. From time to time, consider letting students do hands-on projects in class. It adds some variety to the day and gives students an opportunity to burn off some energy.

8. Reward good behavior, especially those kids who have a history of misbehaving.

9. Don't take disruptions personally, and don't let students push your buttons - no matter how annoying they get.

Feedback, as always, is appreciated.

6/05/2006 3:25 AM  
Blogger DCS said...

@ The Anonymous Teacher: You seem to really have a heart for teaching. Don't lose it!

@ Dennis: Kudos to you for your success with the EBD student. That's a great example of turning a student around.

6/05/2006 3:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! a wealth of knowledge I have gained from reading all of these blogs! I am writing a research paper on should teachers be able to remove a disruptive student from their classroom permanetly. I 'd love to read any thoughts you all might have on: 1.) positive effects of removing disruptive students from the classroom and 2.) positive effects of retaining disruptive students in the classroom.

Thank you for any comments that might help me as the degree I am seeking is in Elementary ED and I am 40. So, I really want this to work!

5/14/2007 1:05 PM  
Anonymous A. said...

I really enjoyed reading this blog. It's amazing how you find something like this years after it has been written!

My son is your typical disruptive behavioral challenge in the classroom. I've observed the gamut of different teacher personality types and how they impact my son. His current teacher is the best teacher he has ever had. She's firm with him, doesn't get angry or lose her temper, and really engages with him in a way that encourages mutual respect... and I promise you, it shows in spades.

On the other hand, it's always a small misfortune of sorts to get saddled with a teacher who is angry and bitter toward disruptive students. The first thing that type of teacher tends to do is disengage, as was posted earlier in this thread. I agree with that sentiment and have watched it happen. It is horribly counterproductive. While it is understandable that not all teachers have the temperament or skill to deal with challenging children, it is disheartening when their approach is to blame the disruptive student for everything within the bidirectional relationship they have with them. It's sad to see the burden fall completely on the student when the student clearly has a tendency toward reacting to the teacher's anger that consistently boils beneath the surface. When I've seen this psychodynamic, I've honestly had to wonder who is expected to be the adult in the classroom.

A child cannot survive or thrive in a classroom environment where that child is resented, unwanted, and the teacher secretly wishes to get rid of them, nor can they do so when the teacher values some students over others.

Ultimately, I think outcomes can often boil down to the ego strength and personal development of the teacher. Teachers with weak ego development are threatened by students who they perceive make them look bad. Teachers with weak ego development are knocked off center by disruptive students. It's not just about dealing with a difficult classroom because that's an EXTERNAL problem. Rather, to dig a little deeper, the teacher has lost control of himself or herself. I almost always watch teachers blame it on the classroom and almost never see them look inside themselves for a solution. In my opinion, that is very problematic and these same teachers do not serve as role models for the children who are looking to them to not only learn academics but personal responsibility.

The classroom is only a reflection of the teacher's internal ability to handle a varying spectrum of psychological challenges. When the stakes are high, and the classroom becomes difficult, the teacher who lost control in the first place may struggle to regain control but the wheels are already in motion. A teacher who struggles with his own psychological issues becomes overwhelmed, angry, and frustrated, just like a depressed person sinks into the darkness of their own mind in response to learned helplessness. Those feelings are then projected toward the students who the teacher feels started the whole fiasco. It's a form of scapegoating to relieve internal pressure.

Teachers are not to blame for everything going on with a student but they have sovereignty of their classrooms during the day. It's always entirely refreshing to have the good fortune to interact with a teacher who can own up to the part they play with their students, as leader of the classroom. It goes a long, long way toward successful outcomes.

3/04/2009 3:27 AM  
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