How watching reality television helped me discover the “key” to teaching difficult students.


When I was a kid I remember liking to pretend I was a WWE wrestler and crush empty soda cans with by bare hands to demonstrate my strength.  I also remember for some odd reason after I crushed the soda can I sometimes try to fix the can and restore it back to its original shape by un crushing it, but no matter how hard I tried the can I crushed was never the same.  Evidence of the damage I inflicted always remained.

Many years later I still have no idea why I tried to restore the cans I crushed but I realize the image of the crushed soda cans represent what happens to the mental health of people when they experience a life that inflicts excessive amount of  chronic stress (extreme poverty, abusive relationships etc).  They may recover to varying degrees from the psychological trauma but they will forever be scared by the negative experiences.

Now I am a high school math teacher and the image of the damaged soda cans from my youth comes to mind when I encounter difficult students.  Often times the challenging students are the students who dealing with chronic stress.  They may come from broken homes and/or have a history of performing poorly academically since they were in grade school.  The consequence of these negative experiences is often that an insidious belief of not being smart enough or will never amount to anything  develops. These feelings can  manifest as aggressiveness, which makes them difficult to manage in a classroom setting.

For many teachers the most challenging aspect of the job is dealing with difficult students and their negative behaviours day in and day out.  It seems no matter how experienced or talented the teacher is managing difficult student behavior sucks the energy from most of them.

I am sure proven to be effective advice on how to get through to challenging students is welcomed by most teachers.  Unfortunately there is no advice on this issue that will make the lives of teachers who work with difficult student’s easier.  Managing a class with a few trouble makers in it is hard work.  There is no magical approach you can take that will guarantee you can cruise through your lessons without interruption regardless of which students are part of your class.  But I do believe there is a key to teaching difficult students, something that is necessary to get through to them.  Funny thing is I think I discovered the key not through direct experience, but from watching a reality T.V, show.

Back in 2005 while spending a year teaching in the U.K, I happened to stumble across a reality Television show from the U.K. called the ” The Unteachables”.  The show took some of the most difficult teenagers from across the UK and matched them up with some of the best teachers in the UK.  Having found teaching in the U.K. as more challenging experience than teaching back home in Canada, especially when it comes to  behavioural management I watched the show with great interest.

Thirteen years later I still remember a specific parts from the show with a reasonable amount of detail.  The cast member I remember most was an English teacher named Phil Beadle who had a very engaging and creative teacher.  At the beginning of the series I watched with great admiration and envy as he got off to a good start capturing the attention of some incredibly difficult students with his playful style to education (why can’t I do that?). But as the series went on reality began to set in as Beadle struggles to keep his students focused during lessons.  I began to feel better about myself as the “unteachable” students resorted back to the behaviors that earned them a spot on the show in the first place.  Then Beadle showed why he was such a highly respected teacher. After struggling to get the students to read Beadle came up with an unusual but brilliant idea, he took them to an empty farm land and had the students read to a cow.  Each student paired up with a cow and with no humans within a 100 meter radius the students read out loud …to the cow.  It was amazing to watch teenagers who adamantly refused to read out loud  (or read at all) in the regular classroom settle down and read when alone with a cow.  Students who normally disrupt lessons with aggressive behaviour were behaving like model students!  At the end of the show the host asked Beadle why his unconventional idea worked so well, Beadle responded with an answer that made perfect sense, he said simply “cows don’t judge”.

Of course!  It is the judgement of others that make “unteachable” students uncooperative in the classroom.  Why try and get labelled “dumb”?  The brilliance behind Beadles unusual idea was that he understood why his students were not fully engaged in his classroom.   Based on their behaviours it is easy to understand why many educators mistakenly assume underachieving students are lazy and just have no desire to learn. Beadle like any great educator did not assume his students were lazy, he had the humanity to  understand that though they can be a pain in the rear for educators,  the education system has caused them more pain.  The humiliation from being singled out year after year as a loser to stupid to learn the curriculum, the subject of derisive and degrading attention would traumatize anyone for a long period of time, maybe for life.  The students felt safe reading to the cows because they knew the cows did not care that they are reading at a level that is below grade level. Cows will not laugh at them or make comments.  Reading to cows must have been like singing in the shower or dancing when no one else is looking, you feel free to let loose and try … and learn to do it better.

The key that ignites even the most difficult students is compassion.  Sometime a very well designed lesson plan can flop while a simple lesson plan can be effective.  The difference is the humanity of the person delivering the lesson.  We are all social beings, we get our self image in part by the way others see us.  If we think others see us as a stupid loser than more than likely that is how we are going to see ourselves.  On the other hand when someone sees as valuable and worthwhile, we might just begin to see the value in ourselves.



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