Teaching our most Difficult Kids
We have all had a student, or two, or more whose behaviour was so outrageous we questioned why were we teaching? These kids are the most difficult to connect with and they don’t seem to want to learn and they destroy the learning of their classmates! But we do carry on because once we get past the frustration we accept that they are that way because others made them that way. And so they are worth that extra effort but where do we focus that ‘effort’?
Having spent a good deal of my career teaching in schools specifically set up for these type of children a question that has occupied me is ‘what right do I have to modifying their behaviour’ and when I have resolved this question a second challenge is how do I want them to behave? I am happy to accept the need for change - for their sake and that of their classmates but the change is in their very sense of self and where does it say this is my job and where are the tools to teach for that change?
I’m a teacher not the child’s parent and I’m not a professional health care worker. I’m more than happy to step aside and let the parents deal with the behaviours and even more willing to defer to the child psychiatrist or psychologist. But in those classrooms and in those special settings there is no effective psychological or psychiatric support and the reality is that the parents are so often the creators of the disability and/or are no longer available or willing to help. So I am left in class to either wipe my hands of the problem or do something to help the student and protect the classroom.
We are ‘teachers’ and we have a calling that brings us to the classroom. If we thought it was just a job and we were contracted to do our work it would be easy more so now than at any time I can recall. All we would have to do is teach for the NAPLAN Test! Fortunately, we teach the whole child and teach them the full set of skills that allow them to successfully function in society.
To understand what skills I need to teach these children I have distilled the goals I have for all my students into being the best they can be and support others while they are doing the same.
The question is how do I define a person’s best? To answer this I turned to the philosophers who have long asked the same question.
In a western tradition any philosophical question will invariably lead us back to the big three, Socrates, Plato and the holy-ghost, Aristotle. When it came to the question what is it to be an optimal human, Aristotle integrated his colleagues’ work into the study of eudaimonia - a life of excellence, living with ethical wisdom and virtue. He made the case to achieve a happy life by studying philosophy and having an involvement in the community through political activity.
In more contemporary times the leaders in this field include Carl Rogers, who describes the characteristics of a fully functional person, Abraham Maslow whose famous pyramid of needs culminates in the self-actualized person and Erich Fromm’s work on personal growth through ‘being’ instead of doing; all these philosophers plus many others have addressed the question I ask of myself.
Positive Psychology rose from attempts to aggregate and rationalize the factors all these studies identified as leading to a life of satisfaction. Using empirical data Positive Psychology studied how our activities impacted on our lives at all levels, physical, psycho/social or intellectual. The common conclusion in the field is that to experience the ‘good life’ you must be engaged in meaningful activities. I saw this aggregation as an opportunity to get some clarification about what characteristics would be suitable to develop in these students.
The American Psychologist Ken Sheldon carried out further analysis on what makes the ‘optimal’ human by examining our evolutionary journey, our personalities and traits, the construction of our identity, social relations and cultural membership. His categorization, like all works in Positive Psychology has a heavy focus on the future and is particularly focused on goal setting. They are as follows:
- Strive to Balance Basic Needs – This includes autonomy, competence, relatedness, security and self-esteem
- Set and Make Efficient Progress Towards Self-Concordant Goals – These goals are those that have an intrinsic quality and support the person’s self-concept reflecting Winnicott’s idea of ‘true self’
- Choose Your Goals and Social Roles Wisely - Goals that are driven by or rely on external factors such as fame, popularity or wealth do nothing to contribute to a person’s positive identity. The goals must advance personal growth and positive relationships at both the intimate and community level
- Strive Towards Personal Integration – The goals must be compatible with each other and support our basic needs. They must also combine with our fundamental personality
- Work Towards Modifying Problematic Aspects of Yourself and the World – Have the ability to identify your weaknesses and problems within the world and include these in your goals. Build on your character strengths and learn to self-evaluate your strategies for change.
- Take Responsibility for Goals and Choices – Take an intentional attitude towards life. Align your desired sense of self with your goals and refer to this affiliation when making important decisions about your future.
- Listen to Your Organismic Valuing Process (OVP) and be Prepared to Change if Necessary – The OVP comes from the work of Carl Rogers where the goals are selected based on our sense of self. We are to take an internalized attitude towards life. If we do this we increase our trust in our ability to know what is good for us and abandon those that work against our true self.
- Transcend Yourself – The more we forget about our selves and give our energy to a valued cause or another person the more human, self actualized we become.
This examination probably hasn’t helped, it has been a hard journey but I have some conclusions I would share.
The purpose of your teaching is really to empower your students to value their worth in society, take control of their future and become a real part of their community. This is not in any curriculum or text and there is only one way to teach character and that is through the organization of your classroom and you model the traits you wish to see in your students. That’s why real teaching is hard and why teachers matter!