On my best day as a teacher, I will talk passionately about progressive pedagogy, empathy as the core of a classroom and diverse student needs. I will say I care about every child, the whole child, and am committed to their growth.

And then there are those bad days. The days where within the first two hours of my morning, I’m called a b*** three times. The ones where my perfectly planned learning activity falls flat because my brilliant student just refuses to pick her head up off the desk. The days when the differentiated lesson I designed just for that one student goes on perfectly but that one student’s chair is empty, missing school again. These are the days that push on my best intentions and idealistic visions. These are the days when reality and philosophy collide, and it feels like my challenging students are behind the steering wheel and I’m just along for the ride.

WHAT’S THE ACTUAL CHALLENGE HERE?

Challenging students aren’t that way because they are inherently bad kids or intentionally creating difficulties in the classroom. To borrow a phrase from Ross Greene, “kids do well if they can,” and if they aren’t doing well, it’s because there’s something getting in the way. When I step back and consider the obstacles in my students’ lives — poverty, trauma, chronic stress — it makes total sense that they are struggling to communicate, regulate their emotions and make progress on learning.

To me, the challenge about challenging kids is the way that I feel working with them. Interacting with these students can bring up all kinds of emotions: sadness because of their pain, defensiveness if a student is criticizing or attacking me, protectiveness over the other students being disrupted, and even annoyance that my day didn’t go as I planned. All this is made more challenging by the fast pace of the day, and the fact that even on a good day it can be hard to find time to take care of my own needs. But I know that how I react to students, and my ability to manage my emotions, colors every interaction I have. Left unexamined, these strong emotions can lead to burnout.

How do we really feel about our most challenging students? Most of us will say “frustrated” as a first reaction. But after we dig a little bit under the layer of frustration, what’s the next emotion, the truer emotion? I asked a room of educators this question at the Educon conference earlier this year. I heard: Worried. Hopeless. Lost. Powerless. Stuck. Many of us feel a deep sense of responsibility and care for “our kids.” When we see a student struggling and believe that we can’t help, the powerlessness can feel overwhelming. If we don’t do the work to transform that emotion in a healthy way, it can instead become frustration and irritation, and begin to chip away at our empathy.

This frustration infuses all our interactions with and about that student, which in turn communicates a lack of care to the student and family, heightening what may have already felt like an insurmountable wall. We say we believe in every child, care for every child, support every child — but when we let our challenging emotions fester, we struggle to communicate that to others — or even believe it ourselves.

I’ve gotten stuck in this trap more than once. It was my student who jolted me out of this cycle when she said, “You don’t really care about kids, you’re just here for the money.” My instinct was to laugh, but I quickly realized that what my student was trying to tell me was that she didn’t feel like I cared about her. I was able to use that moment to let her know that I did indeed care, and we were able to have a great conversation about how teachers can feel frustrated sometimes and how we’re all human. That conversation ended up strengthening our relationship and my work with her.

My most challenging student is not inherently challenging as a human being — but I need to own that it’s challenging for me to work with them. Once I take responsibility for my own emotions, I am now in a position to transform them.

WHAT CAN I DO TO CHANGE THIS?

It’s not about not feeling hopeless, defeated and powerless in the face of challenging student behaviors. These are normal responses we can expect to have as humans in relationship with other humans who are struggling. Instead, we need to own the emotions and work to make meaning of them. This means taking the time to dig into questions like:

  • Why am I feeling this way?
  • Could this feeling give me insight into how my student is feeling?
  • What does it mean about me that I feel so frustrated, lost or hopeless? Does it change my conception of myself as a teacher, as a person?
  • What do my students’ challenges bring up for me? How does my own history influence my responses?

What is the venue for these questions? In an ideal world, teachers would make space for grappling with these questions as part of their scheduled job responsibilities. At my school, we take time formally and informally to delve into our own emotional response to the work, to gain perspective, to check our assumptions and stay grounded.

Informally, this looks like maintaining a school culture where the students’ strengths are at the center. We have an informal “no venting” policy, preferring instead to problem-solve. It’s common to find teachers in each other’s classrooms at the end of the day comparing notes and talking through a challenging situation: “Hey, was he upset in your class today, too? What did you do about it? Do you have any sense of what’s going on for him?” We encourage this peer consultation and make time for it.

Formally, we have several mandatory and optional group opportunities for staff to focus on wellness and making meaning of the work. Once a month we have wellness groups where staff choose a personal wellness goal for the year and use the group to stay on track and get ideas. We also do periodic case conferences, focusing on one particular student, where we walk through what behaviors are coming up, what we understand to be at the root of those behaviors, how we’re feeling working with that student, and what we should do going forward. We make the choice to invest our time as a school doing this rather than focusing staff meetings on other topics, and we see the benefit for students when teachers are on the same page about supporting them.

WHAT’S NEXT?

We will never lose the need for meaning-making, because working with humans will always be inherently complex and bring up emotions. However, there are some proactive things we can do to smooth the path for ourselves.

  • Proactively plan for being a person with emotions. Expect that the work will be challenging and that sometimes you will feel awful, and accept that this is a normal part of a human-centered job. What are some ways you do this?
  • Build in support systems. Find the people, groups or strategies that will proactively support you and will respond to you with kindness and understanding when the going gets rough. This might be nurturing your personal friendships or relationships, strengthening connections with co-workers, my supervisor or other folks at work, or going to my own counselor or therapist. If I’m worried about respecting my students’ confidentiality, I remind myself to turn my focus back to my own emotions: I don’t need to share my students’ names or stories in order to talk about how frustrated or hopeless I’m feeling, and work through those emotions.
  • Develop understanding. We can better make meaning when we better understand the underlying issues at stake. Seek out information about trauma, chronic stress, the impacts of racism and discrimination, and other systems at play with your particular population. I incorporate these topics into my school’s ongoing professional development (which staff design and facilitate), and also use my own personal learning community online to find these resources.
  • Forgive yourself: Above all, we need to be gentle with ourselves. This self-forgiveness serves to remind us that we also must be gentle with our students, offering a fresh start each day and providing opportunities to repair and rebuild our relationships after conflict

When I feel like I just don’t have time to slow down and do this emotional work, I remind myself that an investment in this work pays off tenfold in my ability to stay grounded, not to get so stressed out, and most importantly, to be a better help to my students who need it most.

Alex Shevrin is a teacher/leader at an alternative therapeutic school in Vermont and an instructor at Community College of Vermont. She also writes about her work at Unconditional. You can follower her on Twitter at @shevtech.  

A Mindset Shift to Continue Supporting the Most Frustrating Kids 24 April,2017MindShift

  • Carolyn King

    Thank you, Alex. This article is so clear and helpful. I stepped down as the artist-in-residence at a pre-k through 8th grade school after 13 years last March due to some powerful emotional reasons. Reading your article helps me to understand ways I could have interacted to remain more grounded and connected to the teaching community and to ask for support when feeling misunderstood and subsequently attacked by a small group of parents.
    Your personal committment both to your own well being, that of your students and your peers is so inspiring.
    Many thanks! Carolyn King

  • When do we have challenging kids in class? It could be the demographic of the school, the student’s home life, an undiscovered learning disability or handicap, or our unrealized bias. Using available expertise (school staff such as counselors and the special ed team) and being honest with ourselves, we can teach the difficult kids and give real help. Oh, and don’t forget to upgrade that anemic curriculum and missing class activities–curiosity and engagement can solve a lot of classroom ills.

    • OkButFirstCoffee

      I over plan and back off, too. Interesting dance. I listen to them, too! I change the pace, constsntly, but back to what is our mantra – we have earned the skills we bring to help them. STAY NEUTRAL, cause they do try to pull you in a million directions – distract you.
      BALANCE AND FLEXIBILITY

  • Randy Bryan

    Good article, Alex. I am a retired English teacher, having devoted 39 years to teaching high school and junior high in NJ and VT. I spent my grade school years at South Barre Elementary (1950-58), and graduated from Montpelier High in1962. I can relate to evrrything you write. I have no issue with anything you say. My largest concern for public schools today is the extreme liberal ideology that many teachers, administrators, and even Boards of Ed wish to impose on vulnerable, impressionable young minds. That is not the goal or purpose of education. Vermont today is nothing like the Vermont of the 1950’s and early 60’s.

  • Sharon Hansen

    OMG…I so needed this today.

  • Leah Rosado

    Thank you for this. I am a music teacher in a small school district where I teach Pk-12. I see the different cultures and attitudes of each class and how my emotions affect my students. I printed this article and will read it on those tough days. Thank you!

  • descanso

    The challenging kids are challenging for reasons of their own. They strike out at us or act out in class for reasons that have nothing to do with us, our classroom, what we’re teaching. We cannot fix their worlds, though we can learn about them. I taught writing, so I learned a lot about my students, even when they didn’t realize it. I found in my 35+ years of teaching writing at the college and university level that school could be — for the challenging kid — a threat or a sanctuary. Sometimes the neutrality of a teacher was the best thing for the challenging student. “Hi. I’m your teacher and I’m here, I’m in this room every class meeting to do this one thing and it is not personal to you. Your only job is to learn it and practice it. I will help you.” It’s amazing to me how many times just that dependable neutrality, an intellectual vs personal challenge, and focus on learning was all a kid needed to relax his/her challenging posture and learn. Sometimes, though, it was scary. I was physically threatened a couple of times, called names and told to F(*& off. I can’t say I always had people to whom I could turn. Some of those cases evolved into student/teacher relationships that are among the most precious and important in my life. You fight the good fight for what you believe in and know is important and, when the time comes, you hang up your gloves and walk away.

    • OkButFirstCoffee

      NEUTRALITY – KEY WORD!

  • KimL

    Thank you for this. I am a special education teacher and it rings true. At the same time my own kids attend an elementary school in a revered, high income district. To my shock the principal has just instituted a “red card” detention system that once again targets the “bad kids” and will be overused as a threat for them to toe the line. I detest the “good kids”/ “bad kids” label–it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. One of my kids believes he is a “bad kid” because of the school nomenclature. A mind shift needs to occur in the administrative echelon. Thank you for your article.

    • OkButFirstCoffee

      Made me think of a concert I attended last night. The lady two seats to the left mentioned being sensitive to loud. Then, her sestmate, and mind, plugged her ears when we sang or cheered, which the stsged encoursged-theywanted us to participate. I saw that I had two choices: follow the program and have FUN, or let the lady next to me dictate to the child inside me who is CONDITIONED to feel bad when offending authority.
      It wasn’t easy.

      • Mary Jane Goose

        I agree with the things the author says about why environmentally children are failing academically. But I don’t understand why, in a country with the freedom to speak the truth, people are still not stating the other issues, the homes these kids mostly come from are single mother, aunt or grandmother, no father in the picture, working low wage jobs, and the kids are left to fend for themselves at ages as young as 5 years old. If you can dress yourself and make a sandwich, you can babysit your little sister while mom goes out at night to party, as she is likely only in her teens. The kids come in lacking not only skills but the appreciation for education itself. The attitude being, it doesn’t matter if I get a degree, there’s ged and welfare to take care of me. I have worked as a teacher for an inner city school for fifteen years so I am speaking from experience, not someone else’s words. We need to be fighting the real enemy, ignorance and tolerance a program that was meant to be a temporary way to help people, not become a way of life passed down from generation to generation. Nor was it meant as a means for men to act like tribal kings to see how many children they can add to their group and then collect the welfare money from the mothers instead of working. It’s a terrible system and needs to be changed as soon as possible. I hope I haven’t offended anyone or sounded racist, that was not my intention, I just live this with my students everyday and see the results of this way of life and the anger it brings to my special education, emotionally disturbed high school students.

  • OkButFirstCoffee

    For the first time, in a looong time, I have a fantastic Principal. I don’t know what she says to them, when I send them to her, after trying everything, but they come back transformed!
    “They” bring out the worse and best in us.
    We are the adults, bottom line, we must hold on to that, and know that our life long earned SKILLS are there to help them, along. Course, I’ve had them not return which is an ego crusher, temporarily, too.

  • OkButFirstCoffee

    Also, IF or WHEN we allow the light into our cracked pots (our broken selves), we can see magic. I.E. our students teach us things, too, and especially the “challenging” ones. AND HOW REWARDING IS THAT?

  • Catherine Ousselin

    Thoughtful ideas to share with our staff. Reflecting on this week with students who have multiple absences due to family needs like babysitting, transportation, work or rejection by peers or teachers, and basic disengagement with learning.When a student has been gone for weeks and then show up unannounced, it can be tricky to integrate them that day. I welcome them, ask if they are safe or if there are concerns about class/life, but I do feel overwhelmed trying to figure out how I can help that student be successful in the class. Especially if I help them design a plan of action and they are gone the next class. For an elective classes, there are students who did not choose that class or whose self-confidence is so low that they act out or refuse to participate. It can lead peers to follow that path. I want to separate those students from our group, but then I remind myself that it takes patience and caring to show that student that they can be successful. We are here to support and guide, not punish. Their history with school has lead them to believe that they can give up and that the teacher will just leave them alone because it is easier to ignore them. But we can’t. They must know that we care enough to push through their current behavior and find the true cause of the issues. Thank you for sharing the Self-Care suggestions. I have used three this week.

  • Teaching Balance

    Being gentle with ourselves is so key. As a public school educator who also teaches mindfulness and meditation to colleagues, making space for this self-compassion is essential. As a way to support educators, I’ve created a site with free “learn to meditate” videos: http://teachingbalance.com 😌

  • Marisol Schultz

    Great article. I have been involved in the private and public school system and I can definitely relate to this. I currently work for an educational math/history video game company ( 7 generation games) that is trying to create a way to engage students in a fun way. Our hope is to try and encourage them to learn in a manner where they don’t feel like it’s homework or the routine that they sometimes give up on. We also offer a lot of free products because we do care about children and their learning. I am hoping that my new direction in education will make a difference. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Juniper Bartlett

    I developed a couple of techniques for stress, anxiety, ADHD, etc… It has been so helpful to people that I want to get it out there. So I made a workbook. If I could get this into the school system, I could really reach a lot of people who need this, maybe have a healthier generation coming up. You can get my workbook here https://www.createspace.com/7140664?ref=1147694&utm_id=6026

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