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  • Sam Martineau

How to Help Troubled Students

Some students will make you feel like a great teacher no matter what you do. Success lives inside them so fully, it seems to spill over to you as a teacher.


Some students reveal to you how good you are as a teacher. They’ll drink if you bring them to the water, but they’ll make you prove that you can do it.


And then it seems that some students will make you feel like a terrible teacher no matter what you do. They are troubled, and you are troubled as a result.


This is, I think, a simplistic way of describing students, but a good intellectual starting place for the article, and I imagine that every teacher has had some experience in these categories. Particularly category number three. It just seems there are students out there that are so difficult, or maybe even impossible, to educate that you inevitably end up feeling that you have failed. Some of these students are endlessly disruptive, others never complete homework, some express terribly low self image, others’ attendance is so poor that they can never get momentum, some regularly sabotage their own opportunities, others are disrespectful or tactless with their fellow students, and many are a combination of these and other troubled behaviors. And teaching these students can make any teacher feel like a failure. As I’ve taught in the homeschooling community and in other settings, I’ve been through this experience many times. I’ve struggled with my concept of myself as a teacher, I’ve imagined others doing it much better than me, and like anyone teaching in the long term, I’ve had to adapt to survive what can often be a discouraging profession.


I have some thoughts for teachers struggling with troubled students. And as much as I love research backed teaching practices, these are primarily based on my personal experiences as a teacher and a philosophy of teaching that I have found durable enough for teaching in the long term. I offer these thoughts to you. Hopefully they will give you some measure of assurance, direction, and perspective.


There Is Always A Lot You Don’t Know


When teaching troubled students, it is easy to see all of their actions and choices as direct reflections on your teaching style and skills. All you see is your interactions with the student, but just as you live an entire life separate from your students, your students live a life entirely separate from you. And that life can have serious impacts on their class related choices. How many of the troubled students you teach are dealing with serious anxiety, but are unwilling to address the issue with you, or maybe even with their parents? How about frequent arguments between parents and tension in their homes? Drug addiction? Navigating same sex attraction? Financial stress at home?


If you could get that student to open up, would you be surprised if they were experiencing a private and painful crisis of faith? Would you be surprised to find that they are living with undiagnosed PTSD? Would it make the pieces fit together better if you found out that they spent all of their surplus emotional energy reliving a particularly vicious bit of bullying they never told you (or maybe anyone) about? Would it change your perspective about what’s going on if you found out that your student feels deeply isolated and seriously depressed behind their disruptive and energetic exterior?


Not every student who experiences these and similar issues ends up channeling their pain into the classroom to their detriment. Some see school as a place they can exercise control and succeed. But could we really expect that of every student? Some students do not succeed because they are not in a personal position to succeed in the ways that we may hope. And we haven’t even discussed the accumulation of everyday sort of issues that can cause consternation for students. Nor have we considered the fact that students may be dealing with either undiagnosed or diagnosed but not disclosed neurological issues. Or non diagnosable neurological issues because the diagnosis for whatever your student is experiencing doesn’t yet exist.


The point here is that every student comes into class with a life’s worth of backstory in which you play a relatively small part. And troubled students always have a lot going on in that story that produces their behaviors in class. So hanging your success or value as a teacher on your ability to fix that seems disproportionate at least.


For Some Students Small Wins Are Big Wins


It seems fairly natural to me to envision what I want students to accomplish, what I want them to be able to do, and the sort of benefit I want them to derive from my class. It’s disappointing to see those things not happen. I’ve had to learn that not every student is going to achieve that, and I have to be willing to be happy for the things they do achieve, even if they seem small to me.


I remember a particular student. He attended class sporadically, was extremely quiet during class, and seemed confused about what was going on a lot of the time. He finally got a string of classes attended together, and I made sure to take time to get him oriented in some of the difficult activities and homework that we were doing. And he had a debate in which he made some arguments. Maybe not great arguments, but some arguments. By comparison to what many of his classmates were accomplishing, it was small. After the end of the school year I had the chance to talk to his mom. I was almost certain that she had seen the investment in my class as a waste. To my surprise she tearfully thanked me for how much my class had meant to her son and to her. Their family situation had created some instability, but apparently it had really mattered that he had a class to go to when he was able to attend. It mattered that he got to listen to intelligent conversation, and that he had to share his thoughts. It mattered that I had taken time to work on that one particular assignment with him and that he felt successful in the debate he had. These all seemed like such small accomplishments that I felt that I was failing him somehow. Apparently he did not feel the same and neither did his mother. So should I throw away in my mind the value they perceived in their experiences because it didn’t line up with my expectations? I think not.


This is not to say that we don’t try with troubled students. Of course we try. But we also must be willing to see wins as wins, even if they are the sort of things we would call a win for every student.


You Don’t Get To Choose


One of my biggest regrets as a teacher has to do with a difficult student. Some years ago I was running our championship tournament and I found out that one of my beginning students, though present at the tournament, had not shown up to any of his rounds. He had been a difficult student all year. Ever resistant to homework, ever resistant to accountability, ever resistant to any of the things that would lead to success in my class, consistently talking during class, constantly making it clear that he resented being in my class, I was so frustrated with him. And then he went and totally blew off the entire tournament. To put it frankly, I ripped him and I was not kind. He never showed up to class again and I haven’t seen him since. I reached out to apologize, but never heard back. Given the trust that I lost, I’m not surprised.


I’ve thought a lot about that interaction in the years since, and I’ve been able to draw a lot of meaning out of it. For example, I’ve pondered what I was so frustrated about, really? At the time, I would have said that it was because I cared about him. And that’s true. I did care about him. But I’ve come to recognize that it was more than that. It was also about control. I felt like the fact that I was his teacher, the fact that I could so clearly see where he was going wrong and hurting himself, and the fact that no amount of normal persuading would work, meant that I had the right to make him do the right thing.


But here is the thing, no matter how right we may be, neither I nor any other teacher has the right to coerce or manipulate a student into making good choices. Students are autonomous individuals and they have the right to make choices, even poor ones. And while students can and should face consequences for poor choices in our classrooms, that isn’t even within a mile of what was going on with that student that day. I wasn’t giving him consequences for poor behavior. I became angry because I wanted control.


Giving that control up can be very difficult for teachers. You want your students to succeed. You know how they can do it. But it ultimately makes life better for you as well as your students. You see, part of the difficulty of working with troubled students is the belief that if you were just a good enough teacher, they wouldn’t be troubled students. But this denies the basic free will of the student. I would suggest for teachers to stop taking the choices of their students on themselves as the ultimate measure of success in teaching. In the end, it’s too large a burden for any teacher to carry.


Focus On Environment Not Outcome


So if you don’t measure your success as a teacher by whether or not your students have succeeded, how do you measure it? I would suggest that you focus on building an environment that you believe will give your students the best possible opportunity to succeed. I would suggest that you work on continually refining that environment, incorporating new ideas and your personal growth as you go along. For troubled students, ask some questions. “Does my classroom provide enough opportunities for challenge and growth that students can make the choice to grow?” “Is my classroom organized enough that students clearly understand what they should be doing at any given point?” “Is my classroom structured such that floundering students clearly can see that they are floundering, or is this clear only to me?” “Do my students have the opportunity to be accountable for poor choices?” “Have I done what would be necessary for struggling students to know that I value them as a student and want to help them, even though they are struggling?” “Does the struggling student have access to the resources that would be necessary for them to make progress should they decide to make that effort?” “Have I invited my troubled students to consider what it is that troubles them, and have I made myself a resource for them in that process?” “Do I consistently teach, model, discuss, etc. the types of principles that would help troubled students make meaningful progress?” “Have I tried to understand my struggling students, to have and express empathy for them, and to exercise patience with them?” “Do my struggling students clearly understand that they are allowed to have their burdens, but are not allowed to take them out on their fellow students?”


The questions could go on, but hopefully you have the idea. Instead of taking on the burden of producing the perfect student, take on the challenge of working toward the best possible classroom. And then let the students make the choices they will make and experience the consequences they will experience. Don’t shame them for it, don’t squash them, and don’t blow up at them, instead let them know that you love them and want them to succeed.


Let Their Problems Be Their Problems


One of the benefits of recognizing that you don’t get to choose what students do and deciding to focus on environment instead of outcome is that you get to avoid one of the most common pitfalls of teaching troubled students. That pitfall is playing into a role that the troubled student would very much like you to play. That role is the owner of their problems. I’ve observed that students whose problems seem too much for them want to escape them by having the people around them become the owners of their problems.


Here is an example of this. Let’s say that you have a student who can be short tempered with other students. This student needs to know that his or her approach is inappropriate and needs to change. But wouldn’t it be so much nicer if you never had to have that conversation with the student? Maybe you could make sure his or her assigned topic for study isn’t too stressful, or perhaps you could always pair him or her with the most patient members of the class. Do you see how this would make the student’s problem your problem?


What about a student who is entirely capable of producing quality work, but chooses not to. There is probably nothing they would like more than for you to get a paper started for them. Their problem is no longer their problem! When talking to a student with a poor attitude, do you take guilt on yourself for things you know you haven’t done wrong so that the student will hopefully admit that they need to make changes too? Don’t make their problem your problem! Let them know what you observe, and ask them to tell you what is going on. You don’t have to be imperious about it, but you also shouldn’t be dishonest.


Letting students experience and own their own problems is an important part of their own growth, and it takes a burden off of you as the teacher. Trust me, teachers have enough problems on their plates without loading student problems on their plate as well.


Overall, It’s Not About You


There are more issues I could discuss, but this article has to have a limit so I’ll end by wrapping up all of the previous statements into a single point. Troubled students are difficult to work with, have always been difficult to work with, and are always going to be difficult to work with. But the more you feel that the situation is about you, the more difficult they are going to be to work with, and the more you feel that the situation is about them, the easier they are going to be to work with. It’s not about what counts as success in your life, it's about what counts as success in their life. You can’t need them to succeed so you can feel good about you. You have to want them to feel good about themselves so that they can succeed for themselves. Overall, making the situation as much about them as possible will lighten your load as a teacher and give you the space to exercise patience, firmness, and love and to be the sort of teacher that troubled students need.

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