Typically the toughest kids to teach vary from teacher to teacher because the label "tough-to-teach" has as much to do with the teacher, the school culture, the learning environment, socio-economic issues and other aspects of the community as it has to do with the student and/or his/her family.
I think we can all agree, however, that we all face tough-to-teach students, and as I think about these students, I want to remind myself of what's most important when this occurs.
Know the Child: Establish a Relationship
The school year has to begin with meaningful, inviting activities that help all members of the learning community get to know one another. The goal of the first six weeks of school as Ruth Charney so eloquently wrote about in the book, Teaching Children to Care, has to set the stage for the year to come, and an essential part of stage setting is establishing a positive relationship with every child.
Establish a Relationship with the Child's Family
Reach out to family members and let them know that you expect to work as a team to support the child in every positive way possible during the year. Tell them that you expect them to ask questions, share their ideas, and be willing to work together to help their child. Learn the best way to connect with the family on a regular basis and reach out with the good news as well as areas of challenge. Though sometimes tempting, we have to steer clear of judging families and use a culturally-sensitive, empathetic approach to all families. We can't judge situations with our perspectives and lenses alone--none of us know it all or have experienced all ways of being.
Build a Team
Some children need more than one teacher to support their needs and this is when it's imperative to build a team. I heard the Massachusetts Education Commissioner, Jeff Riley, discuss how he fostered in and out-of-school teams to support students in multiple ways. When a child is tough-to-teach it's often because he or she is not having his/her basic needs met. That child might be hungry, sick, without a safe or nurturing home, tired, worried, or unsafe. A teacher with multiple students in his/her class cannot do all or be all, but a good strong team can fill in the gaps for a child who needs more, better, or different.
Think about what's most important as you consider this child's needs. The following questions may serve as a guide:
- Is the child safe? Can more be done to ensure a child's safety?
- Are the child's basic needs met in relation to a safe, nurturing home, proper nutrition, rest, play, and health care?
- Does the child have social emotional learning needs?
- Does the child have at-home academic support, resources, and tools? If not, how can the school bridge that opportunity gap with homework clubs, lending out computers, making a supply bag, offering books and more?
- Is the school program meeting the child's needs, and if not what more can we do?
Always be Kind and Loving
Say that 100 times. It's not always easy to always be kind and loving when you're teaching lots of students and your systems of support are sometimes compromised. But as much as possible, you never go wrong with "kind and loving."
Teach that Child
As you think about your programming and teaching, find ways to teach that child first. When you prioritize the tough to teach children early in the year, you make space to teach all children throughout the year. Sometimes it's our inclination to stay quiet or procrastinate when it comes to the tough to teach students, but that only makes things tougher. We have to put their needs out front and look for solutions earlier than later in order to be able to do our jobs well for all children.
No one likes to hear the bad or challenging news. The cartoon to the right depicts that well, but when it comes to tough to teach students, there is often difficult news to relay or tough conversations to be had. Teachers can be reluctant to speak up because there are often harsh consequences for relaying your needs, worries, or ideas in the school house. The adage silence is golden is often the gold standard in schools and teachers who speak up are too often punished. Yet our job as educators is to advocate for children and that means respectfully and truthfully speaking up, and the job of those you speak up to is to work with you to find solutions to the problems.
Just today I was talking to a friend who is a teacher in a school with lots of tough-to-teach students. Her school does not have the funding or supports for these students, and in my opinion, the community and state are letting her schools down. Her troubled students will be our fellow citizens soon enough and unless they get good supports now, they will not be able to flourish later, and may even become problems to each of us and our society in general.
We all know we can do better in schools. We will never reach a point where there is no more to do, however that doesn't mean we should give up. We have to look for ways to teach our tough-to-teach students well. I know we can all do better with this.