During my tenure as a high school teacher, I have encountered many “problem students.” Some, in fact, went on to become convicted felons. I’ve even had one student who committed three murders and a few armed robberies after graduation. Strangely, I did not really encounter many problems with these teenagers in my class. Some of their other teachers had trouble with these students, but for the most part, I did not. So what did I do to avoid troubled students’ becoming problem students?
I guess one big advantage is my teaching style and my personality. A high school teacher walks a fine line between being a dictator and being a “pal.” If you’re too lenient, some students will definitely take advantage of you, yet if you’re too strict, students will often find sneaky ways to undermine your authority. One way I handle this is to have just a few classroom rules. A long list of rules is not effective. Choose four or five really important ones, and stick to them. Be consistent in enforcement. On the first day of class, you might even let the students help you come up with a few rules. This gives them ownership and encourages compliance. They should know your rules and consequences for each offense. Post them in a visible place in your room.
Another important factor is getting to know your students. What kind of home life do they have? If your students believe that you really care about them as people, they will react to this. Believe me, high school students know which adults care about them and which ones don’t.
Let students know they can come to you and speak to you in private about problems they’re having.
Use parents, other teachers, guidance counselors, and administrators for help. Find out if a student has a close relationship with another adult at school. Keep in touch with parents, too. Act as a team to help the student, and not just to “tattle” on a student or get him in trouble.
Find something that the problem student is interested in. For example, if the student is artistic, ask for his assistance in making a poster or drawing for you to use with a lesson. He’ll be more inclined to participate in a lesson he’s helped with, and it will improve his self-esteem, which is often a problem seen in difficult students.
Never belittle a student, especially in front of his friends. Many problem students want to appear as “tough guys (or girls),” so some of their behavior is solely for this purpose. I’ll give you an example of what I’m talking about: Let’s say you notice that John, your problem student, has his book closed and is not following along. If you say, “John, open your book right now!” He might want to challenge your authority, thereby not “loosing face” in front of his buddies. Approach it from a different angle: ASK him to open his book. I usually even say it in a lighthearted manner, like, “John, open your book, man! You are missing out on a great story!” By using an approach like this, 95% of the time the student will comply. Why? You haven’t made him look bad in front of the class.
Most importantly, never have a confrontation with a student in front of the class. Talk to the student privately. If he has an anger problem, allow him to go to the media center or even to the restroom to “cool off.” By allowing a stressed student time to calm down, he will usually return to class in a better frame of mind.
Problem students can disrupt your whole class and even ruin your school year. Don’t allow students with problems to become problem students for you. Always be fair and understanding, and try to use a little psychology and common sense in classroom management. Your efforts will pay off in the long run and make your life a lot easier.