No student is a bad student – unless you believe they are

Northern Bay Secondary College


It should hopefully not surprise anyone to learn that students are affected by what you think of them. For example, if you go into a classroom thinking, “These are the naughty kids, they are going to cause hell and there is nothing I can do” – then, without fail, you are in for a rough lesson. There are of course many factors to the proverbial ‘success’ and ‘failure’ of a class but since beginning teaching I have found that, where possible, avoiding the preconceptions of that ‘notorious’ class and their behaviour can only help.

During term two, another Teach For Australia Associate reiterated to me the value of the tabula rasa or the ‘blank slate’ approach to the start of every class. I was inspired by this Associate’s story to set three rules for myself that I would take into every class:

  1. be respectful,
  2. put in your best effort and
  3. be honest.

I adopt these rules in this particular order as I consistently tell students that their ‘best effort’ is bound to change day to day and that if they are having a rough time then I will listen and take that into account. Inevitably, a student will say, “Does that mean that I can have a rough day every day?” – and to this I reply always, “…and that brings us to rule number three – be honest. So sure, if you are truly having a rough day every day, by all means tell me. But, if I catch wind of you giving me the run around then we will have a discussion.” To their credit, with this response, I hear a version of “oh yeah, fair enough” every time.

In a roundabout way, this brings me to the point that students are never‘bad kids’ – not until you believe that they are. Provide that respect, effort and trust each day however and they will impress you. Too often I feel that a student’s reputation is allowed to precede them and that unthinkingly or otherwise we pigeonhole them in a certain way.

Of course, students will still misbehave and this should be addressed accordingly but I try very hard to remember that it is their behaviour, which is bad, not them. Maybe they do not know any better? Maybe we did not demonstrate that positive behaviour? Or maybe their acting up is the result of something unrelated to you, your classroom and your lesson at that precise moment.

Of course, this is a sentiment that I hold very early in my teaching and I can only draw on two terms of experience as evidence so far. On this topic though, I sincerely hope that my gut instinct is right. If I can hold to this idea and provide my classes with a blank slate each day, then who can say what sort of kids they will be?

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