The beginning of a new year brings opportunities to pause and reflect. After my first year of teaching, I reflect on a particular student who challenged and changed me more than any other. He was not at all easy to teach. In fact, we had frequent clashes; there were many days when he would leave the classroom in anger. There were more suspensions than I can count on one hand.
Throughout the year I spent hours in conversation with teachers, child psychologists, and mentors. I aimed to make my lessons more relevant, more accessible. Improving our relationship hung heavy on my mind.
From disruptive to constructive
Research tells us that disruptive students often have an enormous amount of energy, but direct it in a way that undermines learning in the classroom. Neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner says that restorative interventions focus on training disruptive students in how to redirect their emotional impulses:
Teaching people to think in different ways—to reframe them in positive terms when the initial response is negative, or in a less emotional way when the initial response is emotionally ‘hot’—changes how they experience and react.
But as the year pressed on with this student, and the failures added up, I began to question whether the healing needed could rely on the bond between him and I alone. I was determined to see whether he could harness his tremendous energy and turn it into a positive influence for the whole class.
Then a breakthrough came. After loudly insisting that he didn’t need instructions for a class activity, I invited him to step into the role of teacher. Unsure at first, he took the opportunity and excelled, receiving a round of applause and affirmations from the class. For the rest of that session, he was an incredibly positive influence, completing all of his work for the first time that year and moving on to assist other students. He continued to improve beyond that class. The student went on to pass the end of year exam just two weeks later, a momentous achievement for one who previously refused to do any work.
Supporting students to contribute
This year, I’ve come to realise that schools and classrooms are ecosystems and that their success relies on a rich web of strong relationships. Students can find a great deal of purpose in lifting each other up, and in contributing to the flourishing of one another’s strengths.
Writing about what it takes to be ‘tough’ in our modern times, David Brooks echoes these sentiments:
We are all fragile when we don’t know what our purpose is, when we haven’t thrown ourselves with abandon into a social role, when we haven’t committed ourselves to certain people, when we feel like a swimmer in an ocean with no edge.
If you really want people to be tough, make them idealistic for some cause, make them tender for some other person, make them committed to some worldview that puts today’s temporary pain in the context of a larger hope.
My relationship with this student has continued to improve since that day. I am grateful for his role in teaching me one of the most important lessons during my first year: that all young people need a chance to be of value—the chance to more fully become themselves.