This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: I’ll tell you about that time I had two very difficult students in my class, what I did, what I wish I had done, and how it shaped my personal strategies for dealing with challenging behaviour in the classroom.
One year when I was teaching third grade, I had a student with autism and oppositional defiance disorder. We’ll call her Sarah for the sake of this post. I knew that she was going to be in my class ahead of time and I was ready for the challenge. I don’t mind difficult situations, but I’m a planner. I like to be prepared and plan ahead. So I spent the whole summer planning accommodations for her and gearing myself up for what I knew would be a challenging school year.
On the first day of school, I was ready for Sarah. What I wasn’t ready for was Kevin.
Kevin was brand new to the school, so none of us knew what to expect from him, and administration just placed him into my classroom randomly. By the end of the first day, I discovered that Kevin had not been identified for any special services at all, but was working at least three years below grade level (meaning letter recognition in third grade), and there were some pretty serious behavioral issues as well.
He got into a physical altercation with another student in the class and ended up throwing a desk at that student on the very first day of school. And he and Sarah did NOT get along, every time I turned around one of them had mysteriously made his or her way over to where the other one was and they were antagonizing one another.
Now I’m not going to get too much into the issues with Sarah and Kevin because this is not about them, this is about my attitude and my mistakes. I’ll just share that little bit of info to sort of set the stage for the types of challenges I was dealing with. So I came home from school on that first day absolutely livid. I could not believe that I was going to have to deal with not one, but TWO students with extreme behavior issues and learning needs in my class that year.
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I would love to tell you that I adjusted quickly, but if I had, well, this wouldn’t be much of a story to tell right? Clearly things just went downhill from the first day. And here’s why.
My self talk (my internal dialogue, the things that I was repeating to myself) was negative.
From the moment I woke up in the morning until I went to sleep at night, there were thoughts swirling around my head like, This isn’t fair. I shouldn’t have to deal with this. These two students both need to be a special setting. This shouldn’t all be on my shoulders. This is just wrong. Things ought to be different.
The shoulds and the oughts.
Now here’s the thing. It’s not that those thoughts were necessarily inaccurate. It is tragic the way school districts are no longer funding special programs for kids who need it and are instead piling the full responsibility for differentiation on the shoulders of general ed teachers. Everyone suffers when a single teacher is expected to plan reading lessons for six different grade levels in one single class with no support.
I should not have been solely responsible for meeting those kids needs, but I was compounding that problem by devoting all my mental energy to thinking about how wrong it was and how unfair it was. All the energy I could have channeled into making the situation better for myself and my students? I was letting it dissipate into feeling sorry for myself and being angry about how screwed up the system was.
I thought about how unfair my situation was all the time, and I talked about it all the time. I’d go out to happy hour with my coworkers on Friday, and guess what we’d talk about? All the things that Sarah and Kevin did that week that drove me insane. I was constantly complaining about how bad the situation was and how unfair it was, which means I was reliving it.
It’s ridiculous in retrospect. There I was on a Friday night, free from all the worries of school in that moment and with two full days off ahead of me, and what was I doing? Taking myself back through all that emotion and stress all over again.
I thought it was okay because I was just venting. Everyone needs to let off a little steam, right? But of course my blood pressure was raised and I was all worked up afterward, and it couldn’t have been very uplifting for my colleagues, either. Because guess what: my complaining prompted all of them to share all of their awful stories from the week as well! So we were all sitting around during our time off when we could have been having fun, and instead were just reliving all the worst moments from the entire week.
This was the reality I had created for myself. And here’s my dirty little secret about this whole thing:
I had convinced myself that I was thinking about what was fair to the other kids, and I’d talk about how it wasn’t fair to them, how they couldn’t learn in the classroom, but the bigger issue was that it wasn’t fair to ME.
I felt like I was working three full-time jobs, one as a teacher for Sara, one as a teacher for Kevin, and one as a teacher for the rest of the class. And if I’m going to be really honest here, even though it’s embarrassing to admit, my primary concern wasn’t helping those kids succeed. It was easing the stress that I was feeling. I was advocating for these two students to get more services and support only partially because it’s what they needed, but my main motivation was making my own job easier.
That school year was the most difficult of my entire 11 years in the classroom. I was positively miserable. I didn’t let myself enjoy anything that was happening with my students, because I was so fixated on the problems with these two students. We had good days of course, but I was always anticipating problems. I was looking for problems, and waiting for problems. And then as soon as they happened I’d be like, See, there you go, we can’t even make it through one morning of peace, I knew it!
The moment everything changed in my classroom
One day about halfway through the school year, I went to pick my students up from lunch and the principal called me into his office. He told me that Kevin had physically attacked Sarah in the cafeteria. He presumed Sarah’s parents would insist that the two be separated, so the principal was going to go ahead and transfer Kevin to another third grade room down the hall.
I sat there, absolutely stunned. In my mind, this was like an answer to prayer. I’ve been telling my administrators that having the two of them together was like a ticking time bomb and someone ought to be moved, but for whatever reason, they chose not to do that. And then all of a sudden, I go to pick my kids up from lunch like any other normal day and Kevin is no longer enrolled in my class? Just like that? Problem solved?
I expected to feel relieved, but honestly, I just felt shocked.
And then it became impossible to feel relief for myself after what happened next.
Kevin was escorted back to my classroom to get his belongings, and the look on his face was one of complete and utter devastation. I thought he was going to start crying, and he was a tough kid who I never seen cry.
My last name was still Powell then, and he looked up at me, and asked, “Ms. Powell, I’m not going to be in your class anymore? Why can’t I stay?”
And immediately, my heart just broke. I’d had many moments of empathy for Kevin before (don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a total monster.)
But I was so wrapped up in how his problems created problems for me that I wasn’t able to think unselfishly until he was no longer my responsibility.
And it hit me all of a sudden that I would have no more opportunities for our one-on-one reading conferences where we worked on letter sounds…the same conferences that I complained about all the time with my colleagues because they were so much extra work for me.
It dawned on me in that moment that those reading conferences were working, because he was now reading on a first grade level, and had made a whole year of gains in only 5 months. Who knew what would happen to his reading progress now that he was having to start all over and build rapport with a new teacher who would likely be resentful of the amount of work he was now adding to HER plate.
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The other kids in the class were watching this conversation with Kevin as he packed up his desk. They had seen the violent incident in the cafeteria and were pretty shaken up, but I’d worked really hard to help him build friendships in the class. I’d taught the other kids to be kind and empathetic toward Kevin, and we’d spent a lot of our class time working on ways to support him. So most of the kids—at least the ones who hadn’t gotten into physical altercations with him–were pretty invested in him as part of our classroom community.
So when he asked why he couldn’t be part of the class anymore, the other kids heard that, and began an outcry: “What?! No, Kevin! You were doing so good! You were using your anger management strategies! No, please, Ms. Powell! Can we give him another chance? Don’t go, Kevin! You’ll make a better decision next time! We believe in you!”
I don’t even know how I made it through the rest of that exchange, but he gathered his stuff and went down the hall to my colleague’s room. I just sort of went through the motions for the rest of the day, realizing how completely out of touch I had been with Kevin’s experience in my classroom. I was so focused on my experience and trying to push Kevin out, that when I got my wish, I was actually really sad about it.
As it turned out, separating the two students was definitely in both of their best interests. They had been like oil and vinegar in my classroom, and both of them were much happier and better adjusted when they were separated. Kevin thrived in my colleague’s room and made new friends, and still played with my class at recess. Every day at recess he would call my name, and run over to give me a huge hug. And every time, I felt pangs of guilt.
There were a lot of moments when I didn’t like Kevin because of how much work he created for me. But Kevin loved me. And it had been my job to love him, too. I just didn’t rise to the challenge because it was so hard and I had too many other things to do.
How I changed my mindset (and why it didn’t happen once-and-for-all)
I would love to tell you that after that year, I learned my lesson once and for all; that I embraced difficult challenges; that I removed myself from the negativity trap.
But I didn’t.
The next year, we got a new principal, and I funneled my proclivity for complaining into talking about how poorly he ran the school and how my creativity with stifled and how I hated the way the district micromanaged us.
Even profoundly impactful experiences will fade away in our memories, and we will default back to habits. My habit was allowing negative thoughts to stay in my mind. My habit was complaining about my job. My habit was focusing on the things that were out of my control rather than on the things that were in my control.
My habit was allowing one or two people (be it students, coworkers, parents, or administrators) to steal my joy. I would allow someone or something to prevent me from really loving my work. I choose to focus on what was wrong and allowed it to drain my enthusiasm.
The good news is that every year, I got a little bit better. And by the time I was in my final four or five years in the classroom, I enjoyed teaching just about every day. Not every moment of every day, certainly, but over time, I trained myself to think differently about my work.
I practiced choosing different self-talk, and reframing negative situations, and observing what things gave me energy and what things drained my energy.
I tried to add as many of those energy-giving things into my life and teaching habits as I possibly could. I was tired of going through every day of my career feeling frustrated and I was determined to change my perspective.
There’s always a handful of things that are really frustrating and that feel impossible for all of us, right? So this mental transformation and choosing to see your work and life differently is really about day-by-day choices. It’s NOT a once-and-for-all thing, at least, it hasn’t been for me.
It’s about daily practices and habits and choosing to be intentional about my thoughts and my actions.
And that’s a decision anyone can make at any time.
We have so much more power over how we experience life and our work then we give ourselves credit for. Imagine how that school year would have gone if I had chosen to accept reality and embrace my situation with Sarah and Kevin. I could have gained back an entire school year that I lost to being miserable and fixating about everything that was wrong.
I could have gone through that same situation and gotten the same or better outcome, but I could’ve actually enjoyed my life and my work through the process. I wish that I had not taken that time for granted, and wasted it on being upset about things that felt hugely important at the time but I just blips on the radar of life in retrospect.
I hope you won’t have to learn this lesson the hard way like I did. Don’t put your personal happiness in the hands of an 8-year-old or 18-year-old. Don’t give away your peace, or let one or two people steal your joy and determine your mood. Choose your thoughts each day and choose to enjoy your work every day…no matter what.
Want more resources?
Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching: I wrote this book to tell more about the process of how I changed my thinking patterns.
Unshakeable: 20 Ways to Enjoy Teaching Every Day…No Matter What: This book shares practical things I did to bring more enjoyment to the day and stay focused on what matters.
Fewer Things, Better: The Courage to Focus on What Matters Most: My latest book delves into how to question the status quo and disrupt toxic school cultures so that your wellbeing is prioritized.