We've all had those students: the ones who know just how to push our buttons, derail our lessons, and behave so outrageously that we wonder if we're being punked. A problem student can make teachers feel irritated, crazy, or even guilty. (We're supposed to love all our students, right?)
Before you lose your sanity, here are some strategies to help you stay calm and unbiased—even if you secretly hate your student.
1. Check Your Story
Jeffrey Kottler, Ph.D., author of the book Students Who Drive You Crazy: Succeeding with Resistant, Unmotivated, and Otherwise Difficult Young People, understands the difficulties teachers face when dealing with problem students. However, he believes teachers need to first question themselves and ask why they find certain students' behavior so stressful or triggering.
Further reading: 6 Tips for Managing Extreme Student Behaviors
"Most conflicts and problems are first resolved inside our own heads," Kottler said. "We best cope with any feelings of helplessness, frustration, and stress by changing what we tell ourselves about what is going on."
I once had a student who irritated me more than trying to sleep with a mosquito buzzing around my head. While other teachers agreed that the student's behavior was annoying, no one seemed to get quite as worked up as me.
After stepping back, I realized the student's behavior wasn't the only thing bothering me. My inability to reach this student was making me feel like a bad teacher. Subconsciously, I was telling myself I wasn't competent enough to get through to this student and it fueled my frustration. Taking the time to recognize where my irritation was stemming from helped me get my feelings in check.
2. Pretend It's Reality TV
I can't tell you how many times I've thought my classroom would make for some great reality television. And on those days, when I'm feeling particularly nuts and my students seem intent on making me crazy, this is the strategy I use: I imagine I'm a camera on the wall, capturing scenes for a blockbuster reality TV show. For a few minutes, I just watch, observe, and calmly think to myself that no one outside this school would ever believe this is really happening.
Kottler said, "It's important to not over personalize what's going on, to remain calm and grounded, to think through the underlying meaning of what is happening since it is rarely about what seems to be happening on the surface."
Watching the antics of a problem student through a humorous, detached, "reality TV show" lens keeps me from taking my students' behaviors too seriously—or personally.
3. Write It Down
Mark Twain said, "Truth is stranger than fiction," and every teacher knows this is true. When students are pushing your buttons and seem determined to exasperate you, simply stop and write it down.
I once had a student teacher who I watched use this strategy. She regularly taught with Gandhi-like calmness, but when students acted up or tried to incite her with outrageous behaviors or comments, she got up, went over to her desk, and discreetly wrote a note in her journal. Later, she shared with me that writing down these events helped her maintain perspective instead of getting upset. She didn't get sucked into her students' attempts to bait her and instead viewed their antics as great party stories she could later share with friends.
4. Lean on Your Coworkers
Anyone who has ever tried to share a work story with a spouse or well-meaning friend knows that sometimes they just don't understand. Talking with your coworkers about a student who's making you crazy is the least expensive and most effective kind of therapy.
My favorite part of the day is the 10 minutes after the last bell rings, when my coworkers and I gather in the hallway outside my classroom and rehash the day—or a particular student's behavior that day. Within minutes, I can go from feeling like I want to cry to laughing in hysterics. Your coworkers understand your day better than anyone else. Lean on them to provide some much-needed comic relief when problem students get you down.
Further reading: Having Patience as a Teacher
Dealing with a problem student is never easy. Keeping yourself calm and not taking students' behavior personally is the best way to maintain your sanity and enjoy your job.