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It's Hard not to Get Angry

How can teachers handle students who have bad attitudes toward them without getting angry or lashing out at them?

It’s pretty tough to keep from getting angry when a student is rude, offensive or has a bad attitude. If you feel angry, that is expected and normal. However, to help you remain calm, try not to take the student’s behavior personally. This will help you control your response. What helped me to keep from getting angry or lashing out was to think about what created this anger in the student in the first place. A student that has a bad attitude has something going wrong in their life or they feel that the teacher was not fair to them. They may have a skewed perspective of what is a standard disciplinary action but because they get “in trouble” in most of their classes they may think that you are picking on them. They may also feel that everyone is “against” them.

I taught in some very rough schools with a lot of students that had a very tough time at home. While I did not accept their bad attitudes or behaviors I did try to get to the bottom of what the problem was.

Here are my suggestions based on my experience and what worked well for me:

  1. After your corrective action, meet with the student, away from other students and ask them to tell you what is truly bothering them about you, your class, etc.. Listen with a non-judgmental attitude, seeking to truly understand the student’s perspective. This will go a long way in helping your student’s attitude and in developing a better relationship between the two of you.

  2. After step 1, you will have a much better idea of how to handle the situation. This may involve moving the student’s seat, talking to the school psychologist, meeting with the student’s parents/guardians, meeting with the counselor and the student or may be as simple as letting the student know that you want the best for them.

  3. This is a hard one. Is it possible that there is some truth to what the student is saying? Does this student get treated differently because they have irritated you in the past? I struggled with this one but was open to considering that this could be true so adjusted my perspective as well.

Here is one concrete example: I was truly getting annoyed by a student because he would draw when he was supposed to be doing my assignment. I felt slighted and would typically ask him to put his drawing away and do what I had asked. This was not working. One day I went against my standard response, stopped and really looked at his drawing. He was drawing a very detailed and well-done picture of a bicycle. I asked him to tell me about it. He got all excited and animatedly told me all about this bike that he was building. I complemented him on the bike and on his drawing and then moved on to another student. Guess what happened? To my surprise he put the drawing away and did his work. From that time forward he did my assignments every time. I did not expect this response. Was I correct originally, telling him to put the drawing away and go to work on my assignment? Yes, I was. However, by showing some interest in him and his personal life, he then viewed me in a different way.

A second example: I had another student that would sleep in my class. I was truly irritated because I tried hard to make engaging, hands-on, relevant and interesting lessons. All the other students were hooked on the assignment, except her. When I called her on this, on a regular basis, she would respond in a flippant, rude manner. I contacted her mother. The mom was supportive but the behavior did not change. I checked with her other teachers and she was sleeping and being rude in all her classes so I knew that this wasn’t personal. I made sure that she wasn’t having to work some night job or have some other reason to be sleeping in class. Nope. She just had a bad attitude and I didn’t know why. One day, as she was running out the door, she turned to me and said, “Why are you always picking on me?” My quick response was, “Because you’re capable!” Wow, I did not expect what happened next. She looked at me with total surprise, stunned into silence and then walked away looking confused. The next day, she did not sleep in class. She did not sleep in class the day after that, or ever again. This is a student that wanted to become a nurse and I told her that if this is truly what she wanted, she had to be competitive and learn her chemistry. She and I became true friends after this. I was so proud of her and did not expect this to happen. Clearly she did not believe in herself and so had “attitude.” The moment a teacher, me in this case, told her that she was capable, her attitude changed. I love this story because its true, it was highly rewarding and taught me that many of our difficult students do not think they are capable or that anyone believes in them so they lash out.

Final Thought: Your most difficult students are your most needy students. This does not mean that you need to accept their rudeness or their bad behavior. This means that they need you to notice them, find out the base issue and even if it’s a really tough situation beyond your scope, the student will have a better attitude knowing that you are trying to understand and support them.

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