Whether teaching or tutoring, a harsh truth awaits the instructor. At some point, a student is going to refuse to cooperate. That student might progress from being obstinate to being outright antagonistic. The instructor could have difficulty mustering the patience to continue with this challenging student. This has the potential to become overwhelming when several students exhibit toxic behaviors. Such a circumstance can make a teacher or tutor question his or her ability. It also can tempt an instructor to quit.
Those who face this dilemma must realize a few points. To begin, they’re not alone. Anyone who has taught in any capacity for more than a few months has encountered some degree of resistance from students. In some teaching and even tutoring arrangements, student defiance begins on the first day. Usually, the instructor will have some idea what to expect, but facing the reality of unruly students who don’t respond to redirection can be demoralizing.
Continuing with this first point, most professionals who work with difficult students will have some measure of support available. Those working in schools can turn to colleagues, counselors, and administrators who can provide insights and other assistance when a student (or group of students) becomes problematic. Seeking assistance early is recommended, even if this undermines a sense of autonomy. Tutors can find support as well. If working for an agency, resources often are available for coping with challenging clients. Parents can be resources too, as they will know their children better than anyone else will.
Seeking support is critical, but so is understand the nature of the problem. Determining why students are uncooperative can be easy in certain cases. A teacher or tutor working with a student who has a documented emotional disturbance might expect to encounter some eventual lack of cooperation. The difficulty won’t always have such clear roots. It might not have to do with the student, either. The teacher or tutor might be exhausted, which can strain relationships and thus, effective management. An instructor’s set of management skills might need revamping. Certain strategies won’t work with certain students. The instructor might need to learn new tools, or might need to polish existing ones.
Disruptive or uncooperative behavior could be (and often is) a reaction to something outside school. A teacher or tutor should be sensitive to and aware of changes in the lives of students. Some circumstance in a student’s home life could be to blame for a shift in attitude. Knowing this can help prevent an instructor from taking resistance personally, but also it can serve as an entry point for how to best help the student. If nothing else, the context can inform how to approach instruction.
Challenging behaviors might result from lackluster management skills or from factors beyond the scope of what a teacher or tutor can control. Disruptions in learning could be temporary and amendable as the instructor makes adjustments or as situations affecting a student subside. However, another harsh truth lurks. Although people in the education business sometimes seem unwilling to admit this, challenging behaviors often are a part of the personality of particular students. The behaviors might not be a reaction to anything external. They might not be temporary. Some students have traits that make them difficult to work with and maybe even difficult to like as people. These traits might not be the fault of the students. A disability or mental illness might be to blame. Knowing this doesn’t always make coping with their behavior any easier.
Teachers and tutors can become dismayed to find doing the work they thought would be their calling has ended up becoming drudgery because of the toxic behavior of one or two students. Difficult as this might be, these instructors need to acknowledge that despite the attitude a student displays, that student remains entitled to an education. Those challenging behaviors might seem like burdens to the instructor, but think about how they affect the life of that student. He or she might be unusually vulnerable due to the same factors that cause the behaviors. Perhaps students with such issues shouldn’t be thought of as problematic and exhausting. Instead, instructors should recognize that they might be fragile and needy.
The overall message is this: some students won’t be the most fun to teach or tutor. Encountering these students can make one doubt if the field is the best personal fit. To effectively press on, an instructor needs to seek support, determine why the behaviors are happening, and personally affirm that even if a student is challenging, that student still needs to be taught. Those in the field have assumed an obligation. Efforts to fulfill this can leave instructors disillusioned, but sometimes the efforts pan out in the most rewarding of ways.
Written by Jeff Hartman