One Possibly-Helpful-But-Not-At-All-Guaranteed Way to End a Power Struggle Pattern With a Student

Messy Teacher Desk

Let’s say you have a student who pushes allllllll your buttons. The two of you have gotten into a series of power struggles throughout the year. Every time you are about to look at this kid, you feel your whole body getting ready to address the fact that he has not yet taken out a pen (again), or she has her phone out (again), or they’re—oh, I don’t know—trying to sell a pair of sneakers to a kid in the next row. Again.

None of these behaviors is ever ideal, but most likely it’s the again part that’s really getting to you, causing you to create mental GIFs of yourself doing something unbecoming of the teaching profession.

At this point in the school year, it’s very possible that most of your interactions with this kid have become about whether he or she is doing the thing he or she does, again. 

You’ve likely tried positive reinforcement: You got that binder out so fast! Great job sitting quietly! Great, wonderful, terrific, awesome job getting to class on time! You may sometimes wonder if these positive comments scan as sarcasm. (Maybe you are feeling a little sarcastic.)

Maybe you’ve also tried the selectively ignoring thing: Just don’t let it get to you. Don’t let it get to you. Don’t let it get to you, but seriously, how hard is it to wear your uniform shirt or not let out a long, barely-tolerant breath when an adult is talking to you—but whatever, I’m ignoring it. I’M IGNORING IT!!!!!

Here’s a challenge for you.

This tactic is in no way guaranteed to work. In fact, perhaps the biggest advantage of this move is that it probably can’t hurt anything, even if it doesn’t make anything better. But also: it could work.

Sometime this week, try to make a caring, yet neutral comment to this eternally exasperating kid.

Remind them not to forget a fun upcoming school event.

Tell them you hope they enjoy their weekend.

Ask them what their favorite color or animal is.

Ask them if they watched the game.

Say or ask anything, as long as it (a) communicates a generally caring attitude toward the kid as a human, and (b) is not related to any confrontation where there has to be a winner and a loser.

If possible, pick a time when whatever ongoing battle you have with this kid is a non-issue, so you’re not pointedly ignoring bad behavior.

You can also ask the same question or make the same comment to a few other students so the kid doesn’t feel singled out. 

One of my quietest victories as a high school teacher came from following up with a student to see if he had tried out for the dance team. He brightened up as he answered, and for that moment he forgot his ironclad dedication to resting his head on his desk, and slowly, sullenly sitting upright only when I reminded him to. That moment also gave me a chance to see him as something besides “the head-on-the-desk kid”—he was a young person who was really excited about something, even if that something was unfortunately not my English class.

As a fourth-grade teacher, I once bought myself a small moment of Zen by reminding a student to zip up his jacket so he wouldn’t catch a cold. I don’t remember if he behaved very well for the rest of the day. I don’t even remember if he zipped up his jacket. I only remember my own relief as I heard myself treat this kid like a ten-year-old on a chilly day rather than a defiant thorn in my side who fueled my Sunday-night stomach cramps. 

The aim here is to open up the battle you’ve been locked into for months and have at least some type of interaction where the scoreboard doesn’t ring up a point for either side.

Ideally, you won’t feel like you won from this interaction, but you also won’t feel like you lost, which means you won’t go into the next moment of teaching either smug or irritable. And you’ll remember you’re dealing with a kid who has other sides to them than the one that faces your way most of the time.

In which case—even though we’re totally not keeping score here—maybe you kind of won after all.

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