As a parent and teacher I’ve learned that negative confrontations with students can often be prevented through those subtle arts that one learns through experience, and extend myself pretty hard in that direction. Only if a student insists on the type of direct defiance that impinges on others’ ability to learn do I insist on beginning the scale of disciplinary measures available to me. that’s after I’m clear in my conscience that I’ve given the student a fair chance and now have to turn my attention to the others who came to learn. Even so, in a way I feel like I’ve let the kid down if I have to resort to the very thing they’re pushing for. As in “Make my day.” Because when a kid pushes for trouble, beyond the in-class kind that’s only meant to be entertainment, it means they are trying to get their needs met too, but I can’t help them do that environment. So I hope for the best as they get passed on into other hands, and hope that by staying calm while giving the consequence I can at least communicate respect and caring. If I was a regular I hope I’d have the margin to get involved in the extra support for those kids. As a sub I just hope that they’ll have an easier time adjusting to me the second time around. Which has happened a couple of times, as if somehow I passed the sub test.
Another kind of challenge is when I realize that some student has missed most of the class work because they’re quietly tuned out and I haven’t noticed, or had the time (due to dealing with the usual hubbub of a classroom full of adolescents I don’t really know) to really connect with them. Or if I have checked in and offered help, they might relapse into passivity, not really caring even to make trouble. Had three students like that last week. One girl did origami all class, another just listened to the goings on of neighboring boys who were nevertheless getting the work done, and another just sat there, a man sized person staring at me blankly whenever I asked him to respond to a question.
The question that comes to my mind when a student resists going along with the learning plan for the day is, “What’s your plan, then, if you don’t like mine?” Because sometimes, contrary to popular belief, kids know better, and can even come up with different but viable ways to gain the essential knowledge and skills of the lesson. Or even take leadership in making it happen for others, as when a teacher asks the boisterous kid to come on up and read or draw or demonstrate for the class. ‘Cause sometimes they just need to walk and talk, as the self-described hyperactive “Discipline With Dignity” conference keynote speaker explained to us years ago.
The passive students are tougher for me, though they are never a disturbance to other students. It’s as if they want to become invisible, but don’t understand the long term consequences of tuning out. Or maybe, there’s a mute challenge, a kind of plea to “Prove that I matter.” Those students I also want to empower to make some decisions. I want to ask, “What do you want?” And if it’s reasonable, to try to negotiate something. Who knows why they have become so passive–the possibilities are many, and I’m sure psychologists could enlighten me further. But if a person never learns to step up and figure out why they are here and what their goals are and how to start moving, how can they survive in the school of hard knocks, let alone “achieve their unique potential”? I just want to send them home so they can at least get some sunshine or play with Legos.
While these two scenarios of noncooperation are challenging, the way other students speak about their nonconformist peers can be especially aggravating. In trying to be helpful, often someone will describe another student in judgmental terms. “He never talks.” “He won’t do what you say.” “She always acts that way.” I always resist that kind of thing and make an attempt to highlight the free will of the student in question. Because, I figure that at least for me and I hope for everyone in the room, it’s a new day, and anything can happen. Everyone is a free agent, and maybe this is the say that the new ELL student listed as “selective mute” will answer a question, so I want to present opportunities, keep my ears open. Or maybe the kid that has been sent to the office four days a week and “never” gets along with subs will today find some reason to stick around until the bell rings.
So far I get blank looks from the students who were trying to help by naming another student as this or that, so I need to articulate better why I don’t think it is helpful. Even when I try to illustrate, saying something like, what if you were going through a stage when you felt shy, and got labelled as someone who never talks to people, just when you started to feel you were ready? Maybe in explaining to the one, I’m really just hoping to be overheard by the “uncooperative” student. Probably it’s something that a kid needs to think through to understand. I sure need to think a lot about things, and write things down and think some more, before I start to understand.