Troubling students, troubled teacher

I begin with this most basic reminder that if it was not impacting me emotionally I wouldn't be spending any time on it. But of course I think to myself that I shouldn't invest myself emotionally. The reality is that if I am emotionally invested I must address it. Even if I practice subduing my emotions, others may keep or expand on their emotional investments so I still must address it.

If I am troubled as a teacher many things can happen in my brain. I can stop caring. I can grow impatient. I can lose motivation to teach. I can stop teaching. I can overlook my principles for emotional relief or satisfaction.

Or as a troubled teacher, I can alter my brain matter for better results. I can work to understand my students better. I can focus on self improvement. I can apply new value judgments to the situation. I can move my emotional energy into activities that have better return on my investment.

We cannot sense that common sense is nonsense

The most basic overlooked attribute of troubling teaching situations is that common sense has already failed, especially in the most chronic or emotionally charged challenges. We are creatures of efficiency. We are creatures of pattern matching algorithms. We are all built from a common mold far more than our senses can identify. So we all want to apply those patterns, same as the last person who felt an emotional weight to the situation.

Simple inferences, regular insights and emotional techniques simply will not pay dividends in tough situations. Someone will have already tried that method on my student, and my first observance of the problem may actually be proof that it has persisted in times past.

Common sense says to review and call attention to problems as they arise, punish bad behavior quickly and consistently, and deal with the most obvious or distracting problems first. When we apply common sense to a situation, let's call it reacting. Let's see what value is gained by reacting to challenges that we confront regarding our students.

No more dumb questions please!
Reacting to a student suffering from poor understanding
punishes students for actively demonstrating their learning needs.
What's wrong with your hands!
Stop talking until you learn how!
Repeat after me so I don't have to!
Reacting to a student suffering from poor execution of skills such as motor, listening, memory, or verbal
punishes students for actively demonstrating their need for rest, refreshment, restrooms and practice.
Stop thinking without this box!
Reacting to a student suffering from poor judgment
punishes students for experimentation and acting on new ideas.
Why aren't you doing as you're told!
Reacting to a student suffering from poor attitude
punishes students for exercising judgment and having personality.
Just eat it because I don't care what you think it tastes like.
Reacting to a student suffering from complaining
punishes students for courage of self-expression.
You are stuck in your ways and I have no patience for it!
Reacting to a student suffering from poor habits
ignores how much shared commitment and support is required to modify habits.
You keep trying, but it doesn't count until you succeed
Reacting to a student suffering from poor adherence
punishes students for persistence during failure.
gives students anxiety for making repeated mistakes.
You are smart but slow
Reacting to a student suffering from perfectionism
encourages students to rush or work carelessly or feel guilty about having attention to detail.
You are so worthless to me
Reacting to a student suffering from excess emotions such as anger, depression and loneliness
can significantly reward the student with inappropriate emotional benefits.
can significantly punish the student with inappropriate emotional burden.
I aim the tweezers at your eye only because of that thing in your eye, and I am blindfolded only because most sincerely I know that you can trust me.
Reacting to a student suffering from poor insight
can cause the student to feel mistrust and to cause isolation and withdrawal.

If reacting is the mode of quickly distributing common sense, I may consider that the student already has way too many such self-appointed teachers. I cannot simply punish away all my students' problems.

So instead, I may consider that rare inferences, profound insights, slow unruly principled actions and extreme self discipline may be required to make progress where others have not.

Another way of measuring how much I fall into the trap of reactive teaching is to ask to what extent am I being just another busybody in the life of this student, like everyone else? Rather than joining a chorus of busybodies, if I will care more, think more and act with the slowness of careful urgency I just may find a way to pass myself and do some real good.

Superiority complexes aside

Time for a downgrade

At this point, I am tempted to pat myself on the back for giving my common sense an upgrade, and calling it good. Clearly, I missed the point because I just gave common sense a downgrade. I took that device, labeled it Captain Obvious, and relegated its assignments to solving common problems like laundry and exercise. That is, anytime I find other people lacking, not measuring up, or offending me in some way, I need to throw out the rule book of common sense.

If I think about it, it's the only thing to do that makes sense. I imagine I had a car that could repair, upgrade, drive and steer neighboring cars on the road automatically no matter the destination, the weather, or the state of disrepair. Then I realized, that's no car, that's a super robot genius moving factory!

If my common sense is so superior that I can do likewise between us humans in flight, well then I may need to form a club for myself. Busybody is here! To save the world! To save the universe!

Now I imagine a regular car who (personified) thought it was a super robot genius moving factory. I feel it might be rough once the car realizes how much of its helpfulness to those other stubborn cars were acts of swerving towards, sputtering upon, scratching and denting the other cars. Oops! It starts to sink in for me what this means. Even my most excellent advice, wisdom, teaching and teaming up with others to do so presents itself primarily as an obstacle to those around me. For students, friends, and enemies alike I am become just another object in life to be navigated around cautiously. In gross simplification it seems my objectification of others has returned to myself. Why is this making sense?

It's the same road...but love instead

I took all my negative emotions while teaching and stuffed them in a bottle and put a label on it, common sense works only on a good day, comes in single servings swallowed whole and carries a non-negotiable, non-transferrable lifetime-limited warranty.

Whenever my view of self collapses to something smaller, and less significant, I am tempted to panic, to feel a loss of self worth, to abandon the cause of helpfulness in my helplessness, and to feel lost in a much bigger world. However, I remind myself this is the same road. I have just found myself to be a different person on that road. Teachers teach and students learn as always, except more apparently, we may have more problems than we have partners who can solve them. There is no army big enough to tackle this task in regular fashion of common sense.

The good thing about losing myself is I can make room for something bigger and more capable to the task than any brand of common sense. What I mean is, I can make room for love. I now have more time to smile, to smell the flowers, and to see for myself why it is important to show love. Showing love fulfills my need for aesthetic and functional accomplishment better than care for my own success ever would. By persisting in the love that results from selflessness, I may notice this love is not actually selfless but empowering.

Here is where I always mess up. Love is great and it is simple. I see this pattern of love is really working well and more reliably than ever. Where shall I put things that are great, simple and reliable? I know, I'll just add love to my list of common sense activities, and go back to my comfortable bubble of common sense.

The next day I am surprised. I am shocked at this horrible turn of events! Shucky darns! What is happening here? Love is not working anymore! I thought I found that last rule to make myself to be the perfect common sense teacher.

Little did I know, love does not fit where common sense lives. Think of it as different parts of the brain. The common sense part is full of doing, business, and quickness. Using that part of our gray matter makes us feel like we know what we are doing. The love part is full of knowing that I do not know, so that I may know. Love is like the question, which is content to remain as such forever.

I have a tremendous need for exercising my creativity, in aesthetic and functional ways. I can accomplish this need poorly, by teaching with common sense and by returning to discipline for all misbehavior. Or, I can be an accomplished teacher by showing love for others.

When others misbehave in my relationships, shall I fight them as an enemy? Or I can jump on this predicament as an opportunity to show love for others. Let me give a few examples.

Time to slow down and let love in

How will I show love? I will stay calm. I will speak softly. I will write notes home. I will have tangible tactile exercises for my students whose engagement is a reward in and of itself. I will keep all physical contact simple and positive, like a handshake or a pat on the back. I will conceal my motives carefully while letting them show in everything I do.

I may make my agenda easier to understand and anticipate to reduce emotional distress. One such way, is to have visual cues prominently displayed. I can break the agenda into 5 to 7 separate task cards and prominently display them on a board. As each agenda item is completed, I remove it from the board. Even the most challenged learner will relax more as the pace and flow becomes predictable.

Not all emotional distress can be managed predictably. So, for those students who have difficulty, I can work with them more closely and carefully. It helps to establish a signal with them for when difficulty starts. The student may not like how the class is proceeding, but the signal is so simple, it is an irrefutable communication. So, the signal is a way to agree to disagree. Or in other words, to make acknowledgment for disagreements peacefully.

In advance, I want to establish a place for troubled students to calm down which is emotionally neutral. The challenge with timeout is to make it into a tool of mutual respect. If I use timeout as a reward or punishment, I missed out on the love and the calming effect it should have. Timeout needs to be a way to clear the mind and to break unhealthy connections quickly but with mutual respect. Timeout should be in mutual anticipation of returning to healthy and happy connection.

Students may have trouble focusing on tasks; even tasks they enjoy doing. To let love in, I must ignore minor inappropriate behavior. Students come with all their habits attached.

I can make my connections positive by offering choices that align to a common goal in different ways. I can tell students to clean up as a way to hear the sound of my own voice. I can tell students that each has a choice in how to help. You can pick up paper scraps, collect pencils, wipe down the board and so on. There it is. I just enlisted a willing army by giving choices whose time-sensitivity comes naturally by competition and opportunity.

I want to prepare my students for upcoming changes. If we will be meeting in a new room or working on a new topic next week, I want to let them anticipate the change first rather than surprise them. Then the change will be more pleasant. Also, keeping expectations is mutually beneficial. Students will have expectations of you and the class no matter what, so give them the cadence freely.

When I speak to my students, I do not want to condescend nor do I want to leave students in ignorance. So I present my ideas with full vocabulary. Ready or not, let them have the full sophistication of the truth. Then, I also want to present a simplified version as follow up. But I also want to return to full vocabulary and back to simplification in turn. If done properly, sounding hard, then becoming easier to understand can be encouraging of further learning. And it can help them to realize, I just learned something tough without too much pain. It also reassures our talented students by showing them how to tutor others.

A measured approach

Ultimately, grades are important. We cannot enlist an army of avid learners without competition and clear objectives. So grades are critical and indisposable. However, the measure of the success of each student is not the grade at all. So what is the measure of that? Firstly, has he done his best? And firstly, has she done her best?

How about the measure for those who teach? Firstly, have we put aside the mallot and mallice of common sense? Sure, our mouths and our fists like to be right all the time, to tell people how it should be and to put others in their place. And our mouths and our fists will get us what common sense can afford in context of human connections: complete and total rejection. See, while all our mouths and our fists agree on common sense, our hearts are too smart and refuse common sense outright. Firstly, have I remembered to resolve discipline problems with love?

And secondly, have we shown the love in our hearts from the heart? Let our hearts tell one another to keep beating strong. Pacemakers aside, our hearts don't actually need that message to accomplish that goal. However, our hearts yearn incomparably to be that messenger and then happily in our hearts at heart we may find accomplishment incomparable to any other.


I feel that being a teacher is wonderful. Teaching is like coming over that first hill in a roller coaster. Teaching can be like dancing just because your feet just won't be still anyway. Love is the key to unlock my potential to overcome my faults. Love opens my path to enjoy the youthful struggle of every student as a friend or parent would.

Students will always have challenges that require uncommon abilities to appreciate. I can realize my own inadequacy and love my way through the thorny way. In so doing, I can provide myself a sense of beauty and a feeling of usefulness that lasts.

For me, having love in action will always be a central and valued activity.