#1 – Know yourself (especially your limitations, strengths, and biases).
At-risk students are EXPERTS at knowing how people tick – it is a survival skill. They know what to say and when to say it to get strategic reactions, create drama, or keep people away from them. They study their environment (often unknowingly) and are incredibly deliberate when they speak or act. It is because of their expertise that you need to be well aware of your own thoughts, feelings, and prejudices. Know what your triggers are, because your students can, and will, try to push your buttons. And if these troubled students can get you or the other students fuming, you will most likely forget about the fact that you are actually trying to educate them. If you find yourself becoming overly emotional about something your student did or said, take the time to figure out why. Evaluate yourself on a consistent basis and work to remain objective, despite your innate feelings.
#2 – Build positive and structured relationships with your students.
Notice, I say relationships, not friendships. Many “unreachable” students have not had positive interactions with adult authority figures, especially in a school environment. So, not only are you often having to break through negative stereotypes about teachers, you may also have to break through gender, cultural, generational, and socio-economic stereotypes. Building relationships is not necessarily about getting them to like you – because liking you does not equate to respecting you or valuing what you have to say. Building relationships is about you making an effort to try to understand what they are going through and laying a foundation for them to eventually trust that you can help them get what they are trying to accomplish. Relationships start with trust and consistency. And, unfortunately, many of today’s struggling youth have had little exposure to either of these concepts.
#3 – Present clear expectations and boundaries from the beginning.
One of the biggest complaints I hear from teachers is that their students are not performing to their standards, academically and/or behaviorally. My first question to these teachers is “do you have clear expectations of what you want, and have you effectively communicated your expectations with your students?” You may still run into students who refuse to meet expectations; however, more often than not, I find teachers with vague and ever-changing expectations. If you are not clear about your standards, how can you expect your students to know what you want? Please do not assume your students should just know what to do and how to do it. If they did not need the skill, they would not need a TEACHER. Additionally, your standards need to be enforced fairly and consistently in order to be effective. Inconsistency and unequal treatment can and will be pointed out to you and possibly used against you.
#4 – Separate the student from his/her choices and behavior.
This advice is easier given than implemented. A misbehavior is not an innate character flaw. A misbehavior is simply an action that needs to be addressed, re-directed, and/or cleaned up. If one of your students acts up, clearly communicate that the behavior is a problem, and that the behavior needs to be altered. When a teacher starts identifying a student as the problem, the teacher loses objectivity and stops looking for the good things his/her student is capable of. We can love the child without loving his/her behavior or choices.
#5 – Give your students a way out or the ability to have a clean slate.
Many of my students are great at backing themselves into a corner. Unfortunately, they do not seem to have the same ability to get themselves back out. In many instances, an at-risk student would rather save face in front of their classmates than do what is right. Remember that your mission is to educate and maintain an environment conducive to learning. If a student is always in the “naughty corner” what motivation does he/she have to do well? Give your students a way to make things right, to start fresh. Once he/she is labeled as the “trouble making student,” you will only see a student who makes trouble. Do not hold the grudge.
#6 – Recognize that negative behaviors are serving a purpose.
If you only focus on, and deal with, the behaviors, you are only treating the symptoms of the problem. Make an effort to get to the root of the issue. Perhaps if you can solve the issue, the symptoms will decrease or even disappear. For example, if one of your students continuously comes to your class late, you could spend all of your time harping on them and punishing them for being late – which does not change the undesired behavior. Or, you could try to figure out the reason in order to help the student be a better problem-solver. Do not assume to always know the reason for negative behaviors, either. Perhaps your late student has to take unreliable public transportation to get to school everyday.
#7 – Always, always, always believe in the best in them.
Too many people look at my students and make judgments based on their looks, their files, or their initial presentation of themselves. This judgment, over years and years, takes a toll on their self-esteem. Often, my students do not believe in the best in themselves because they have been constantly reminded of how they are lacking. They will underplay their abilities in order to not fail to meet expectations. Every student you come in contact with has redeemable qualities, sometimes buried, but always there. Believing in unruly teens can be an act of faith, but you might be surprised what you will find when you set out to look for the good things. Teachers are too often used to waiting and searching for things to correct, instead of intensely searching for the good things their students do.
#8 – Let your students FEEL successful and join in the celebration.
Self esteem plays a major role in the actions and choices of any teenager. Many students who act out typically feel awful about themselves. Feeling miserable all of the time becomes cyclical – the student feels bad, makes bad choices, gets in trouble, feels bad for getting in trouble (or disappointing others), then makes more bad choices…and on, and on. You may not be able to completely break your students’ cycles of poor self esteem, but you do have the ability to create a learning environment where your students can FEEL successful (even if it only lasts for an hour). Let them tackle tough problems, have high expectations, and allow them to bask in an achievement – no matter how small.
#9 – Develop an emotionally and physically safe place for learning.
Students who are afraid will not learn. Physical safety is typically at the top of most schools’ lists for students – hence, the metal detectors, drug dogs, no aspirin rules, etc; however, emotional safety is often overlooked in classrooms. Do you allow your students to make negative comments about each other? Many schools are trying to tackle the concept of bullying, but there are things you can do in your classroom to make sure each student feels safe to learn. Take a hard line on bullying and do not allow the psychological mind games to occur in your classroom.
#10 – Build yourself a support system.
If you are a teacher of challenging students, you are probably misunderstood by those who love you and pitied by your acquaintances. Many people just do not understand why we would basically volunteer our time, energy, and money to reach our reluctant learners. And it is very easy to fall victim to the naysayers – you know who I mean – the people who constantly challenge your decision to teach this population, doubt your sanity, or even other teachers who consistently complain about their students. Avoid the naysayers and surround yourself with a network of people (whether at work, within your family, or online) who will understand your motivation, support your goals, and push you to continue improving.
In the meantime, cherish your successes and congratulate yourself on surviving – and thriving – in the challenging occupation of educating today’s youth.