Thursday, October 25, 2007

"Problem" Students?

I am sometimes questioned and challenged about how I deal with “problem” students. In fact, at times, I am criticized for siding too much with students. It is a fair criticism that deserves an explanation on my part.

To be sure, I firmly believe that when students make mistakes, they must be held accountable for those mistakes. In the real world, we must all eventually face the consequences of our actions. Thus, it is only fitting that in schools, we prepare students for the real world by holding them accountable for their mistakes, albeit within the confines of the school’s policies and procedures.

That said, I believe that punishment is not enough. When students make mistakes, we must guide them to fix those mistakes. For example, when a student intentionally breaks a window, it makes sense to have that student pay for the window’s repair. Not only does that hold the student accountable, but it teaches him or her the value of remedying one’s mistakes. In law this is called restitution. In laymen’s terms, it’s called responsibility.

Furthermore, when a student makes a mistake, we must genuinely care for that student and help him or her learn from his or her mistake. When coaching public speakers and debaters, I always tell my students that they will learn more from losing than from winning. Losing forces you to reckon with what you could have done better, for you can only improve when you know what needs improvement. Losing also gives you the drive to do better next time. That’s why I tell them this paradox, “You have to lose if you want to win.”

I fear that we can sometimes be so judgmental and vindictive that we forget to help student grow from the experience of making mistakes. As I mentioned above, punishment is never enough. True concern and care for our students must drive us to help them remedy their mistakes, as well as learn and grow from them. In my mind, to do any less is just bad teaching.

Over the many years that I have been teaching, nothing has been more rewarding than seeing a “problem” student turn his or her life around, and knowing that I helped him or her at least a little bit. Besides, I don’t believe there is such a thing as a “problem” student. Rather, there are only people with problems who sometimes make mistakes—and those people are all of us.


Boni said...

Does this have anything to do with the Valentine's Dance? Kidding aside, I completely agree with you. Two things happen when kids make mistakes. First they wait to see what kind of response they will get from you. Will you react the way they expect, which is the way they've had their parents, other adults react to them in the past? Second,if you don't, if you show genuine interest in their growth, will you follow through even if they stumble again?

Kids, especially the teenage strain, are not so much a mystery. They need someone, as hokey as it sounds, to love them. Thanks for loving them and seeing them through Christ's eyes. It's not so easy sometimes, but it's definitely worth it.

Peter Bae said...

I think that "problem" students emerge when teachers give up on students and resort to negative labeling tactics...

Jeff said...

Of course it's the teachers fault. They raised them, and made sure the neural pathways were developed when they were infants, set the habits of discipline, curiousity and respect when they were young, and didn't smile enough when the kid disrupted everyone else's ability to learn in the desperate attempt for the attention he or she doesn't get at home.

Jeff said...

"they will learn more from losing than from winning."

If that is true G, the Chicago Cubs should be in Mensa.

Galvin Deleon Guerrero said...

Well, it seems to be true for the Red Sox. They're not in Mensa, but they have certainly learned how to win.

Jeff said...


Peter Bae said...

I'm not a teacher so I can't speak as to how it is in the "real" world, but ideally, isn't part of the teacher's job to believe that he or she can bring out the best of each student in the class? (No matter what kind of family you come from-- rich or poor, religious or non-religious, etc).

Jeff said...

I've seen a few kids completely destroy other students' ability to learn anything in other classes. A constant disruption is an infringement on their rights to learn. It happens. It's not funny. The education field has a general viewpoint accepting some of the worst liberal excesses in which everyone is a victim and anything goes. I intend to write about this. I liken the situation with teachers to baseball managers. Joe Torre never won much of anything, and had minor esteem at best with mediocre teams for years. He comes to the Yankees with tons of talent and he becomes a hero. The super rare person is able to transform the mediocre to competent. Without the background established at home, education is an uphill battle at best. The home life is a much bigger factor on educational success than the teacher in my experience. The kid who is a constant disruption still deserves an education, but he or she shouldn't be able to destroy other students' education.

Peter Bae said...

Well, I admire all of those who can transform the mediocre to competent. Kudos to those unsung heroes!

Galvin Deleon Guerrero said...

It should be said that helping students, even "problem students", should not be done to the detriment of other students' safety and learning.

At Mount Carmel, I often invoke the parable of the lost sheep, where Jesus said we should work to find the lost sheep. However, at some point, we have to remember the sheep who are not lost, the sheep who are back at the pasture waiting for guidance. Whenever the lost sheep jeopardizes the lives and welfare of the other sheep, or if the quest to save the lost sheep does likewise, then we've gone too far.

We must draw the line somewhere, and that line is the point at which a "problem" student deters the learning of his/her classmates or threatens the safety of them.

As far as "liberal excesses go", I don't think it's an excess to care for students.

Lastly, it's sad that schools have increasingly become surrogate parents. We have to remember that parents are and should always be the primary educators. While we as teachers should all strive to help our students grow, that does not mean that parents should abdicate their responsibility to their kids.

Still, we as teachers should remember that many kids come from broken homes. And no matter how much we demand that parents do their part, we teachers are often the closest thing kids have to parental figures.

So, while it's unfortunate that we teachers have to be surrogate parents, sometimes we have to. If we don't, who will?

Jeff said...

Of course it's not an excess to care for students. It's an excess to let a behavior problem run roughshod over a class and disrupt the learning environment for the other, in the public school's case, 30 kids. It happens. I've seen it.

I know about the surrogate parent role all too well.

It's the student who has done the right thing, by the way, who is usually left behind. I've had so many instances where the four or five on grade level seniors I had would be bored with the 8th grade work required for the other 25 classmates on the eighth grade level. They also weren't receptive, by the way, to their own differentiated more complex assignments, so the whole thing was just unfortunate. And if you have a kid on the second grade level, and I have a lot of them, how much time can be spent there. It's like being a doctor in a trauma ward, one person is in intellectual cardiac arrest, so it's hard to focus on the other with an ankle sprain.

Education, here is a disaster area, and there is a complex set of reasons. The quick and easy target is the teachers, and I wouldn't put the onus on them.

Peter Bae said...

Hi all,

Thought this was an interesting short read. There was an article on the NY Times about disruptive students.

The link is here: