I’m not the parent of a teenager. At the very least, I’m 13 years and 9 months away from holding that honour. I do, however, spend much of my time with the teenage offspring of others. Depending on your local lingo, I’m a “relief,” “substitute,” or “casual” teacher who teaches students from 8th to 12th grade.
Whilst I’m still learning how best to manage behaviour — and the results of my efforts are often far from perfect — I’m beginning to realise just how much I rely on some of the strategies taught at university or learnt from other teachers. Even when these strategies utterly fail me, at least I feel that I’ve done right by my students and maybe, just maybe, they’ll thank me for it when they calm down. These are the strategies that help me keep my sanity when dealing with difficult students. Hopefully one day they’ll help me to deal with the behaviour of my own children, if only by reminding me to stay calm.
Pick your battles
Every teacher has their own priorities when it comes to behaviour. For me, the highest priority is respectful behaviour towards others. I’m particularly fanatical about tackling racist/homophobic language and ensuring that students don’t carry on conversations whilst someone else is addressing the class. This means that at times I need to let lesser behaviour go. Although it can be hard to ignore the student who refuses to sit on a seat instead of the desk, or insists that ripping up a sheet of paper is more productive than writing a story, it’s generally not worth an argument.
In my experience, it can be hard to keep your cool when a student tells you they hate you, that YOU should have better control over them, or — in all seriousness — that whilst it’s fine for boys to be promiscuous, a girl who is must be “dirty.”
The comments that really set me off tend to be the ones which demonstrate an attitude that I dislike. Generally with these comments, there’s little I can do in terms of an official process and consequence. I can explain my views and my reasoning to students, but I need to remember to stay calm. Whether they agree or not, teenagers will generally consider the opinions of others when part of a genuine conversation. They won’t listen to preaching. In the end I can’t make them agree with me, but I can at least expose them to an alternative view.
Consequences are a highly variable thing. Some kids don’t need a teacher to set consequences for specific behaviours — they set their own. Whether it’s getting poor grades, being told off or disappointing the teacher, many students want to avoid the natural consequences of misbehaviour. However, where students aren’t concerned about these outcomes, teachers need to set consequences. There are some students, who without interference, would sit and talk their way through every class for the semester. They might regret their behaviour when they failed the subject, but wouldn’t give it a second thought up until this point. I was certainly one of these students in 8th grade. In these situations, kids need consequences which are relevant to the behaviour. For example, in my classroom constant chatting and no working would lead to a clear warning such as: “You have work to do. You need to stop focusing on your conversation and start working; otherwise you will be moving away from your friend.” Whilst I can’t force a student to act a certain way, I can give them a choice. If they choose that continuing the behaviour is worth the consequence, then that’s fine. At least they’re taking responsibility for their actions.
Try to be fair
This is VERY difficult in a classroom of 25 to 30 students. I’d like to think it’s easier when parenting teenagers, but I’m probably kidding myself. Kids have a keen sense of fairness — at least when they personally are set to gain from it – and will very vocally point out when they haven’t been treated the same as somebody else. I do my best when it comes to being fair, but for some students this is never enough. Whilst there may only be consequences for the two students who I SAW throwing pencils, I have to hope they realise that exactly the same would have happened to the others, if only I knew who they were. One of the toughest parts of treating students fairly can be getting students to understand that treating people equally does not necessarily mean treating them the same. The fact that the boy with Asperger’s is allowed to write about what Edward Scissorhands DID rather than how he FELT does not mean that he is being given preferential treatment. In the end, all I can ask is that even amid a chorus of “IT’S NOT FAIR,” I can still feel that I’ve done my best to treat my students fairly.
Don’t take it personally
No matter how hard a teacher tries, there will be times when students simply don’t give a crap. Whether they choose to sleep through the class which took you five hours to prepare, completely ignore every word you say to them or — as in a colleague’s recent experience — tell you they fucking hate you when you greet them, there are some things students do that can be hard not to dwell on. In these situations it’s important to remember firstly that teenagers often have a lot to deal with. It may be that that you simply happened to be there when they wanted somebody to take their frustrations out on. If it turns out that this isn’t the case, and they were specifically targeting you, all you can do is remember that you’ve done your best and not take it personally.