When students act out, why do we seek out flaws in their character? Shouldn't we instead search for the flaws in our schools and our teaching, holding us, the adults, primarily responsible? Shouldn't we find better ways to understand the problem children, the ones we label the troublemakers?
I dreaded my first-period class. It was big and early — 29 bleary-eyed 11th- and 12th-graders yawning and slurping extra-large iced coffees. My students, recent immigrants and refugees from more than 25 different countries, spoke English with varying degrees of fluency, making my task of connecting with each particularly challenging.
And then there was Joe.
He was funny, opinionated, and unceasing in his running commentary on our U.S. history class.
Sometimes it was a clarification: “It’s due when?” More often it was an opinion: “Those Nazis, I mean that’s messed up!”
He had one volume: loud. And he shared ideas as soon as they popped into his mind, unable to contain them a moment longer. His interjections could come at any time — during silent reading, group work, or while I was explaining an assignment. I was forever reminding him, “Please, Joe, try not to call out.” “Remember to raise your hand.” Sometimes I simply looked sternly in his direction.
He was always polite: “I got ya, Ms.” “Sorry, Ms.” “My bad, Ms.” He really would try. But three minutes later…
We teachers all have our Joes. Our students who consistently call out, talk back, refuse to participate or sit down or stay on task. They throw our lessons into disarray, make our heads pound. They keep us up at night strategizing, worrying. How can I connect? What strategies might work tomorrow? When, occasionally, these students miss school, class is unusually calm. Guiltily, we sigh with relief.
How do we reach and teach our troublemakers? Most teachers have binders brimming with ideas: shuffled seat assignments, tracking systems, rewards for on-point behavior. But when these fail, what can you do when it’s you alone in your class balancing 29 personalities, the clock ticking and your 40-minute-long class is almost up?
Too often schools’ response to misbehavior is exclusion: timeouts, visits to the principal’s office, suspensions, expulsions. It is the easy way out — often a form of triage when too many classes are overcrowded, understaffed, or undersupported. But, whatever the reason, exclusion damages our students’ futures.
Carla Shalaby, Ed.M.’09, Ed.D.’14, a former elementary school teacher, urges us to see and teach our most challenging students differently in her new book, Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School.
Shalaby introduces us to four rambunctious first- and second-graders: Zora, Lucas, Sean, and Marcus. These four have already been labeled as problems — by both school staff and peers. Shalaby set out to see school through their eyes. She followed them into classrooms and on school field trips. She accompanied them to the park with siblings, to karate class, and back home with their families. These four children leap off the page. They are daring, charismatic, silly, curious, creative.
But at school, they are outcasts. Shalaby paints a stark, but painfully recognizable portrait of a typical American classroom. School has “good students” and “bad students.” To be good is to follow teacher directions and rules, sit quietly, listen attentively, do what you’re told, conform. Those who deviate, question, or rebel are often excluded. And their exclusion sends a sharp message to their peers “that belonging to the classroom community is conditional, not absolute, contingent upon their willingness and ability to be a certain kind of person.”
Why is it, Shalaby asks, that when kids act out, we seek out flaws in their character? Shouldn’t we instead search for flaws in our schools and teaching — holding us, the adults, primarily responsible?
It is a question all educators should be asking.
Joe and I came to a head in late April. A guest speaker was finishing a presentation. Just as we were wrapping up, Joe shouted out, “Hey, you’re hot!” I regret to say I snapped. “Joe!” my voice loud and stern. “Come up here right now.” The bell rang, the class streamed out, and Joe shuffled up to my desk.
Troublemakers is not a book of strategies. Shalaby is clear that we cannot support our most disruptive students with cookie-cutter “behavior management” techniques. Rather than prescribe what to do, she offers up ideas for how to be, urging teachers to act first and foremost from a place of empathy, love, and understanding for all students.
But how do we as teachers go about putting this into action? In rereading the stories of these four young people, I was struck by six important truths these students teach us.
1. Keep children in class.
When we exclude our students, we are telling them: You don’t belong here. Exclusion shuts down opportunities for dialogue and understanding between us and our students. And exclusion triggers a vicious cycle. When we send students out, they miss essential academic content and skills. They return to class behind, confused, and even more likely to act out. These missed lessons add up and have long-lasting consequences. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, students who struggle to read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to drop out or to fail high school. Across the country, approximately 3.5 million children are suspended from school annually. And African American and Latino students are three times more likely to be suspended than their white peers, according to 2014 data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
2. Let children be heard, and really listen when they speak.
To be heard is to be respected and valued. I see the importance of this simple truth whenever I speak at length with a student. They come during lunch, or linger after school, seeking advice on how to talk with friends, parents. When I see a student upset, unusually surly, or argumentative, I try my best to carve out time to check in and see if they want to talk. Being open to listen, and being aware to ask, reinforces to our students that we see them and we value them. Frustratingly, too often rigid school schedules leave little space to meaningfully connect.
* * *
Joe and I finally sat down to talk, and to listen, on that late April afternoon. He shared with me his frustrations. I shared with him mine. We examined how I might feel when he interrupted the class and we examined the same interruption from his perspective. I shared my hopes for what he could achieve in my class; he shared his hopes, but also what he needed from me to achieve them. It was not a wholly comfortable conversation for either of us, but it was a starting point.
In the following weeks and months, Joe still called out, still offered spontaneous commentary at full volume, but he did so less frequently. More often than before I intentionally asked him to lead a discussion or to share an opinion — creating space for him to be included, and to be heard.
* * *
No one wanted to work with Jenny. In groups, she argued, she was dogmatic, and she sulked when she didn’t get her way.
Mostly, Jenny was unpredictable. Some days she walked in with a bounce and a smile, eagerly pulling out her binder, taking notes in a flurry, and jabbing her hand into the air to confidently answer questions. Other days she slunk into class, slouching in her back corner seat, glowering.
In groups, she was the same. She could be full of ideas, ready to work and ready to encourage others to tackle assignments — be it a PowerPoint presentation on labor unions or an op-ed for our local paper. But other days she would stubbornly talk over her peers. When they didn’t comply, she refused to do any work at all.
I was at a loss about what to do.
3. Partner with families.
Teachers’ most powerful partners are our students’ families. They are the experts, our students’ first and most important teachers, and their fiercest advocates. Our families know their children’s strengths, their passions, and their struggles. Resounding research tells us that strong family partnership in schools is essential for student success, school success, and for our own success as teachers. These partnerships are perhaps most important for our troublemakers. We often only see one or two dimensions of our charges. What is more, we only see our students in a collective — as one of maybe 30 personalities vying for attention. As Shalaby shows us when we follow Zora, Lucas, Sean, and Marcus outside classroom walls and school halls, we see strikingly different sides, personalities, and strengths of these young people. As teachers, we must try to know more of these dimensions.
* * *
Early in the fall I met with Jenny’s mother. Sitting together one evening I heard about Jenny’s journey to America, the family she left behind, her struggle to fit in. Her mother shared her hopes for Jenny’s future and some of the challenges she faced. We exchanged phone numbers and emails, and for the rest of the long year we checked in regularly.
And in the classroom, I shaped an approach from what I had learned. Every day I made a point of checking in — often in those few moments as students filtered in. “Today’s a bad day, Ms. Lander,” she would share with me. “I’m so sorry to hear that. Would you like to tell me why?” Often she would. Sometimes it was another class or friend that was proving frustrating; other times it was an argument with her mom. For such days we developed a pact. “What support can I give you?” I would ask. Jenny would think for a moment and then provide an idea. Maybe she needed to work solo, or maybe it would be helpful to write thoughts in her notebook. Sometimes simply sharing her mood seemed sufficient to help Jenny turn things around.
4. Seek out our students’ strengths.
All students have strengths. Perhaps they are avid photographers, basketball players, coders, or poets when not in school. But when it comes to our troublemakers, it can be easy for their assets to be overshadowed by behaviors that disrupt the carefully cultivated cultures of our classrooms. We cannot lose sight of these strengths. Yet it is not enough to know that our troublemakers are budding artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs. We must also seek to reframe and better understand the qualities we find most frustrating. Zora shouts out a reaction during read-aloud; her teacher labels her impulsive. But what if, Shalaby counters, we saw Zora’s expression as fearlessness? Sean is forever asking why. His teacher describes his behavior as badgering, but Sean’s mother sees him as questioning and curious.
* * *
In class, Jenny was often stubborn, demanding that other students follow her ideas, growing upset when they didn’t. What if I reframed her behavior? What if I saw Jenny’s obstinacy as confidence, a young woman unafraid to share ideas? Jenny had a powerful skill her peers could learn. What Jenny needed were strategies to help her leverage her confidence and tools to help her become a generous leader.
At lunch one day, I shared with her some of my observations. To my surprise, her eyes grew wide. Quietly she asked, “You think so, Ms. Lander?” “Yes I do, and I think you have real potential to be a class leader.” She was grinning.
And so we began, taking time in quiet moments to break down leadership skills, discussing elements she could practice. Jenny attacked each with a determined nod. She still struggled at times, still had bad days. But what I saw more and more was Jenny volunteering to lead and, slowly, succeeding.
* * *
I was worried about Henry. It was only week two, but already I could see him slipping into a pattern. He barely took notes and chattered continuously with the boys next to him. He had yet to turn in a piece of homework. But I noticed too that in discussions he was engaged, offering thoughtful comments about the growth of cities during the Industrial Revolution. I held Henry back one afternoon. I shared my observations. How could I support his learning? He looked around the empty classroom.
“I should probably move seats,” he mused.
“That sounds like a strong idea. Where would be best for you to sit?” I asked. We talked through different possibilities and he settled on a spot across the room, among another, more studious, but also silly group of boys.
The next morning, Henry strode confidently to his new seat, and as the class progressed, it was as if another child had walked in that morning. He took notes, led discussions, and was quick to throw his hand to the sky with an idea about the impact of the growth in business monopolies. The new Henry showed up again the next day, and the day after.
5. Strategize with students.
We can only guess as to why a student might call out or fail to do homework. Rather than assume we know the answer, ask. From our students we can better learn what hurdles they face and in what ways we can support their success. And in doing this we demonstrate our commitment to our students.
As fall chilled to winter, Henry flourished in my class. He still forgot his homework sometimes, still had to be occasionally reminded to stay on task. But he had found a group of friends who could be goofy and yet also grapple with charting the effects of the Spanish American War. I watched excitedly as he grew in confidence, one of the first to raise his hand to answer a question or share an opinion.
A few weeks later, I learned that this was not the Henry that appeared in his other classes. He confided this to me one afternoon when he came seeking advice. In other classes, he described, he was always the troublemaker, always being sent out, always blamed for something. He didn’t know what to do. Many of his teachers seemed to have such a negative opinion of him. Most importantly, he was upset because he wanted so deeply to make his father proud.
I saw an opportunity.
“I see you in my class,” I told him, my voice slow, deliberate. “I see how hard you work and how well you can do.” He nodded a little shyly. Together we could talk through strategies that might help in other classes. But I also had another idea, a challenge.
6. Create opportunities for students to realize their potential and be publically recognized for their academic achievements.
All students are capable of achieving remarkable things, they just might need our help to do so. In raising the stakes, but also the support, we can create opportunities for students to explore at the edge of their capabilities. And when they do succeed, celebrate these achievements. Our troublemakers are too often only publicly acknowledged for their disruptions. We can change this pattern by intentionally creating opportunities to publicly recognize their strengths.
I am a journalist as well as a teacher, and I believe it is critical that my students learn to write clear and powerful prose. Halfway through the year I had my class embark on an op-ed project, writing on issues they cared about, the very best selected for publication in the local newspaper. Sitting with Henry on that fall afternoon I proposed an idea. What if he worked toward being one of those 10 students whose op-eds were published?
* * *
These six ways of being are not enough. Shalaby argues, and rightly so, that our troublemakers are “canaries in the coal mine.” These children, in their defiance, are warning us of something fundamentally destructive — in Shalaby’s words, toxic — about our schools and our expectations for all young people.
School is a place that prioritizes the group at the cost of the individual. Too many schools require students to conform, to sit silently, to do without questioning. Too few schools allow time for creative student-driven exploration or provide space to form meaningful relationships with peers and adults. Such school structures hurt all our students’ futures, but it is only our troublemakers who rebel forcibly enough to make us take notice.
I think of my own classes packed with close to 30 teenagers. I see them for barely 40 minutes a day. In that time I try to connect with and support this diverse collection of individuals. But I have never felt that I have succeeded — or can succeed 100 percent. This failure weighs heavy.
Shalaby urges us to reimagine the classroom. We must also reimagine schools. Top to bottom we desperately need to question the structure, the curriculum, the role of teachers, the role of students. We need a system of education that supports all types of learners, not just some learners. We need a system that will support teachers in reaching every student. And we need schools that nurture our students’ curiosity and individual strengths.
* * *
A week after Henry and I talked, he came into my classroom all fired up. His father, he told me, was very excited about Henry’s determination to write an op-ed. He was hoping to support him at home and might even put a down payment on a computer to help his son write. “If I get my op-ed published,” Henry confided, “I’ll make my father so proud.”
Throughout December and January Henry doggedly worked to research, write, and edit. It was not always easy — he needed many reminders and cajoling — but we kept at it. As we approached the deadline, Henry began showing up early and staying late to edit.
In February, nine student op-eds were published in the paper. Henry’s was one of them. It was one of the strongest. I couldn’t have been more proud.
Jessica Lander, Ed.M.'15, is a high school teacher in the Boston area. She is also a regular contributor to Usable Knowledge and the Boston Globe.
Illustrations by Samira, Abdullah, Aisha, Ahmed, Sebastian, Zaynab, Aisha, and Ruba.