Although I have my share of issues with my students (ahem, stolen iPhone that has not been found), one thing I can say is that I have yet to get into a heated confrontation that resulted in a kid cursing me out or threatening me. I know it’s sad that this is even notable and I definitely do not consider myself to be an expert at classroom management! Nevertheless, here are some humbly-submitted thoughts on avoiding a “knock-down, drag-out” fight with a student. I am not guaranteeing this advice as foolproof, but (so far), it has worked for me…
Never tolerate disrespect, but choose your battles.
A very important part of avoiding conflict or disrespect from students is to never tolerate disrespect in any form. For example, I always call my kids out for using foul language, even if it is in a whispered conversation with a classmate, a tweet, or a passing chat with a friend in the hallway. I remind them that they are at school, and they should behave that way. Allowing kids to talk to each other inappropriately can eventually lead to their speaking to you in the same manner. I want my students to know that it is not OK to talk to each other crudely, just as it is not OK to yell or curse at a teacher. I even correct students for using an improper tone or glaring at me in a confrontational way. I believe that addressing these small issues can prevent larger issues from popping up in the future. Interestingly enough, I find my students to be very responsive and often apologetic when I correct this type of behavior. In addition to my commitment to high standards for student behavior, I have also learned to choose my battles. Since kids are always messing up, I cannot treat every infraction like Armegeddon or take anything they say or do personally. I have learned that it’s best to address student behavior without making a big deal out of everything. Simply saying “that’s not OK” or “don’t say that again” is often enough to correct a student who is being inappropriate. I think that when I do need to be more firm with a student who has done something major, he or she is more likely to take it seriously since I am not always flying off the handle about every little thing.
Never engage in front of other students.
In my teacher training, I learned about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which defines adolescents by their need for love and belonging. Basically, nothing is more important to a teenager or pre-teen than looking good in front of his or her peers. So, what is cooler to a teen than being able to tell the teacher off in front of all of his or her friends and classmates? Or, conversely, how embarrassing is it to be chewed out by the teacher in front of everyone? I have become an expert at recognizing the point at which a kid is about to explode, and it is usually at that point that I stop talking and escort the student out of my classroom. However, it is not to send him or her to the office. I rarely do that, since I believe that it is at these worst moments that I can create the best relationship with a troublesome student. I also do not want to send any student the message that cannot handle them, and need help to deal with his or her behavior. I am the responsible adult in my classroom, and that is usually more than enough to handle a problem child. Besides, it is always fun to see the brazen, arrogant loudmouth who threatened to bring your classroom to a halt become a meek, mild, little lamb when you get him or her alone in the hallway. I have even sent arguing students to the hallway, where without an audience to egg them on, they are often more than willing to “kiss and make up”. In short, kids are way more concerned with impressing their friends than being respectful to you or anyone else. So, a great first step is to get a kid alone to relieve peer pressure if you want to get through to him or her in a volatile situation.
Being “cool” means more than one thing to me–so, to clarify, here are some words that come to mind: approachable, calm, accepting, fun, friendly, easy-going, kind, empathetic and most importantly, patient. I think many of my kids come to school with a chip on their shoulder waiting to be recognized in one way or another. Unfortunately, instead of being greeted with kindness or concern, they feel attacked, and so they attack back. Even when we teachers feel that we have done nothing wrong, simply not taking the time to acknowledge a student or treat them with the love and care that they are desperate for, can be enough reason for them to lash out, seemingly unprovoked. I also think that celebrating and affirming youth culture and not putting it down goes a long way to gain students’ respect. I am not saying you have to start wearing baggy pants and listening to rap music to avoid confrontation. But, I do think that students need to get that you’re on their side and if they feel like you are dissing who they are and what they like, then they are less likely to take the time to understand where you’re coming from. You do not have to embrace what kids like, but you can at least respect it.
Diffuse, don’t escalate.
Another part of being cool, is to always remain as calm as possible when a conversation seems to be escalating towards a conflict. I think we often forget that kids are not necessarily operating with a full deck, and we must treat them accordingly. In cases where teachers fight fire with fire and go back and forth with a kid, I think it puts the student in a corner that they can only fight their way out of. I always try to offer an alternative to escalation. Remember, you’re the adult! Although a student may be getting out of control, you must remain calm if for no other reason than to demonstrate to the irate student the proper way to deal with a stressful situation. My habit of choice is become more calm and quiet as a student gets louder and more angry.
Model appropriate behavior.
My personal non-negotiable is profanity. I think it goes without saying that this inappropriate behavior for a teacher, but I also know that it happens, a lot. I have to be honest and say that I do not always keep my cool, but when I do find myself getting angry, I try to disengage before I say or do something I will regret later. I start by getting the kid alone and calmly asking: “Have I done anything to disrespect you?” Usually, this is when the child realizes that they disrespected me, although I have treated them kindly and with respect. I have yet to hear a child say “yes”, or not eventually apologize for his or her behavior. Obviously, this method works for me because I strive to treat students the way I want to be treated. Admittedly, I do call them “wack” a lot, which is why, I guess, “you wack, Mrs. Blanchet!” has become a greeting I hear everywhere from students, current and former. It has become a sign of endearment, LOL!