12 Steps to Debunking the Myth of the Unreachable Student

I have written before about my naivete as a first-year high school English teacher. I truly thought that my good intentions would be enough to carry the day. I loved English, so my students would too. Because we all know that the teacher’s enthusiasm is all that’s needed to motivate students to learn, right? I am also a fairly unexceptionable person, so I assumed my students would also find me unexceptionable.

They didn’t.

In fact, many of them found me quite excessively exceptionable.

They refused to learn from me. They didn’t want to have anything to do with me or my beloved English.

Of course that was not the case across the board. I had plenty of compliant students and even a few enthusiastic ones.

But those aren’t the ones who keep you awake at night for the very good reason that those aren’t the ones who make it impossible for you to do your job.

I had no idea what to do with those resistant students, and when I asked other, more experienced teachers in my building, many of them encouraged me to give up.

“That kid is unreachable,” they said. “Don’t waste your energy on him.”

But what I discovered–within just a couple of weeks for some of my difficult students, within a few months for all but one–is that energy isn’t wasted when you spend it on unreachable students.

Because it turns out that there is no such thing as an unreachable student.

Here are my 12 steps to reaching the supposedly unreachable:

1. Start with the toughest nut. Try to win over your most disruptive student first. There are several reasons to start here. First, the quality of your teaching life is going to vastly improve when you find a way to manage this student. Second, he’s often a ringleader, and others will fall in line when he yields. Third, you may need more time to crack this nut, so it’s best to start immediately. Finally, you send a strong message about your character to other students when you aren’t daunted by the kid who is trying to make your life miserable.

2. Raise the bar.  Often, the least manageable students are given the most meaningless tasks, especially in tracked classes. Which comes first: the busy work or the misbehavior? The Honors class gets to write stories and go read at the elementary school, while the “regular” section gets stuck with a worksheet packet. Resist the advice to lower expectations for unruly kids. Bored kids=classroom management problems. Make your class challenging. Look at all that energy the disruptive kids have! Just think what they could accomplish if they channel that energy into something productive.

3. Show up in unexpected places. Don’t be creepy about it, and don’t embarrass your students. But make it a point to walk the hallways in the morning, saying good morning and greeting students by name. (Especially your worst students! Teachers tend to ignore the unruly kids when they can. Be different: shower the unruly ones with attention.) Try standing by the back door as kids leave the building in the afternoon, telling them to have good evenings, be safe, and do their homework. Sure, many of them will ignore you or say you’re weird. But you know better: you’re sowing the seeds of caring, and secretly, they like it.

4. Have students write you a letter on Day 1 and write back to them that night. A 24-hour turn-around with assignments for the first couple of weeks gives a strong message to students that you care about them enough to prioritize their work. This first letter does serve as a writing diagnostic, but please don’t correct anything in it. The purpose with this assignment is to get to know your students and to make a connection. I usually ask students to write to me about their previous experiences in English class, what they liked or didn’t like, what they know or believe about themselves as readers and writers, what I should know about them in order to be the best teacher for them, what they’d like to learn in my class. I learn a great deal of information about them, their experiences, and their preferences from this assignment, and it also gives me plenty to respond to. I write a letter back to them (a personal letter to each student, and yes, this takes a lot of time but it’s worth it), connecting with their experiences where I can, previewing things we’ll be doing, sympathizing with and celebrating past experiences, asking questions, suggesting books they might like, that kind of thing. You can get through part of the responding during your school day: start writing back to your first period class while your second period class is writing to you.

5. Write personal notes. This was the single best thing I did to build relationships and, especially, to win over my toughest nuts. I carried a stack of Post-its in my pocket at all times and whenever I saw something happen in class that was positive, I wrote a quick note to that student and dropped the note on his or her desk. It was my goal to give a Post-it to every student in class once a week. I kept a chart by my desk and checked off the names of students who got notes in each class period so I wouldn’t overlook someone. Often, it was VERY challenging to find something positive to say to a student. I will confess to once having written, “Your shoes are so shiny and white today!” It felt like a new low for me, but the student in question took enormous care to keep his shoes sparkly clean (not an easy task given that he lived on a dirt road with an unpaved driveway), and he was very pleased that someone noticed. But mostly I tried to focus on classroom behaviors.

6. Play favorites. Actually, this was the single best thing I ever did to build positive relationships. We always hear that we aren’t supposed to play favorites, but what if you play favorites in such a way that EVERY student thinks he or she is your favorite? EVERY class thinks they are your favorite? I’ll tell you what happens when you greet your absolute worst class by saying, “Wow, I’m so glad it’s time for 5th period. I think you guys are becoming my favorite class!” Your students begin to believe it after you say it a few times, and they start trying to act like they think a teacher’s favorite class ought to act. They rise to the occasion. Everybody wants to be liked. Especially the student who is trying her hardest to make you hate her. Try taking your most disruptive student out in the hall and asking very sympathetically, “Is something wrong today? You’re one of my favorite students, and I’m just really worried about you today.” Believe me, that kid has NEVER been anyone’s favorite student before and nobody has ever worried about her. There is power in that. Maybe you think it’s wrong to tell a kid you like them when you don’t. But in my experience, the more I told that kid I liked them, the more I believed it and felt it too.  Every class I ever taught was my favorite. Every student I ever taught was my favorite.

7. Recommend a book. Find a book you think is a good match for one of your students and leave it on her desk with a note, “I thought of you when I read this.”

8. Give birthday cards. Chart your students’ birthdays on a calendar, and give them a card on their birthday. I liked to tape a new pencil or pack of gum to the card as well. Every so often, a student would tell me that my card was the only acknowledgement of their birthday they received.

9. Feed them. Hungry kids can’t learn, and you might be surprised by how many students come to school hungry. In many cultures, including my Southern one, food equals love; food equals family. Feeding someone is a sign of caring about them. Boxed cereal is cheap, and my students liked it dry. It’s not that expensive to keep a box of granola bars on hand either.  Be careful about allergies and school policies. Interestingly, I also found that my resisting students would often also resist taking food from me. They didn’t want to learn from me, and they didn’t want to take my cereal either. With a couple of kids, I knew I’d finally worn them down when they said yes to a granola bar.

10. Be a goofball. I think we have a tendency to shut down and clam up in our most challenging classes. We will laugh, share stories and jokes, and enjoy our “good” classes. There seems to be nothing to enjoy in the bad classes. We’re just trying to get through that period, and we’re often trying to have as little interaction with that class as possible. (Worksheet packets, anyone?) I also found that my “bad” classes refused to laugh at my jokes or act like they cared about my stories. They resisted everything I did to try to make connections. I felt like a comedian who was bombing big time, day after day after day. But I kept getting up there on stage, trying to be the teacher I was in my “good” classes, performing a one-woman show of fun classroom learning.

11. Don’t correct spelling and grammar on first drafts, journals, or freewrites. Pay your students the compliment of engaging with their content, responding to their thinking, feeling, experiencing. Writing is an act of communication. Your response to your students’ work is one of the most effective ways you can build a positive relationship. When you correct mistakes and don’t engage seriously with what they’re trying to communicate, you convey disrespect for your students and you also give them the wrong idea about what writing is all about. Honor the work they do in your class by responding to it as a fellow reader, writer, learner.

12. Wear your Wellies. Students who don’t want to learn from you may test you for quite awhile to see what you’re made of. If you get your feelings hurt by their rejection, it’s going to be really hard for you to keep making positive deposits in those relationship bank accounts. Don’t take it personally!

I taught some tough kids, but I never taught one who couldn’t be reached, who didn’t, in the end, want to put at least a little effort into building a relationship with me and behaving more or less functionally in my class. With many students, it took months. With a couple, it took more than a year. The most important quality you can bring to your classroom is persistence. As Garnet Hillman reminds us, we have to be relentless in the classroom.

5 responses to “12 Steps to Debunking the Myth of the Unreachable Student”

  1. I love this. Thank you so much. I am encouraged to realize I do several of these things – and you gave a bunch more suggestions I can easily use! Thanks for putting out chock-full of good stuff today! 🙂

  2. […] This week on my blog, I posted my usual Sunday feature, links to what I’ve been reading online. I shared some very lovely photos of Frances, who is possibly the world’s most adorable kitten (as well as one of the world’s more spoiled kittens. Her nickname is Precious Tiny Perfect–only nobody but me calls her that–and it’s very clear that she does, in fact, find herself to be entirely perfect. And she is correct in her self-assessment.) I posted about Late Work and reflected on the Un-reading Summer Reading Program. I also shared 12 Steps to Debunking the Myth of the Unreachable Student. […]

  3. Oh my goodness. I am so glad to have found this article. I am a therapist working in a secondary school and am looking at raising awareness of attachment in the classroom. This says it all and in such and empathic way. I amaxed that you were unaware that this way of working with insecurely avoidant and insecurely ambivalent attached was instinctively the right way. AMAZING and I will be sharing this with the teachers in my school. What better way of demonstrating what works.

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