Problem Children

Isabel the Spy, an elementary school teacher, has a great post on her tumblr about dealing with problem students. She keeps going back and wondering how you reach those kids and how you teach them while also teaching all the other kids in the class. Reading it brought back some bad memories from my time as a teacher in Japan.

People are often surprised that I had bad kids in Japan. They expect Japanese students are all polite little robots. But I had some nasty kids, especially in the junior high. Chair-throwers, screamers, vicious bullies. Kids who clearly were disrupting class for the sake off being jerks. The problem I found was that, to paraphrase Tolstoy, while every good student is good in the same way, every bad student is bad in their own way.

Some kids are just mischievious. They wanna push boundaries, see what they can get away with. That’s natural, even good in a kid, I think. They’re growing aware of the social world around them and want to see what it’s made of. They’re like fish tapping their noses against the glass of the aquarium. They’re not necessarily trying to break the glass, they just want to see where it is and how much it’ll give.

Sometimes you could tell the kid’s homelife was bad, or something had gone wrong in their lives. I had one 8th grade boy who went from being sweet to being somewhat violent and I could tell, from the rage in his eyes when he acted out, that he was angry at something. It wasn’t me, but I was foreign and an authority figure with no actual authority and I made an easy target. I tried to provide discipline as best I could, but really his outbursts just kind of broke my heart. He was a good kid, he was just angry, and I didn’t know what to do about that.

I had another student who was kind of a sociopath. Just coldly disruptive, a true bully who liked throwing his weight around, against smaller students or even teachers who wouldn’t stand up to him. Maybe he was angry, too, or a boundary pusher, but he seemed more like a thug to me. A kid who realized he had power and liked using it. But who knows? I certainly don’t. And there are others, too. Good kids tired of being good who want to be bad for a while. Bored kids, tired kids, kids who have a headache and don’t want to conjugate stupid English verbs today okay?!

And in a single class you’ll have all of these kids, along with the good kids who are good today, bad kids who are good today, good kids who hate you, bad kids who like you, and then are are the quiet kids, the kids who are struggling because they’re great at math but suck at English, and the kids who want to be squid fishermen like their dads and are totally right when they say they’ll never need to learn English.

I was always a good kid growing up. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure I was deeply irritating in a know-it-all sort of way, but I rarely misbehaved. I thought the bad kids were dumb and annoying and disruptive. And they often were. It wasn’t until I became a teacher that I figured out why they were that way. And being a foreigner in Japan, I felt a certain kinship with some of the bad kids. Like me, they were outsiders and outliers. Kids who didn’t fit in the neat, sailor suit-and-desk shaped spaces they were supposed to fit in. Even so, my job as a teacher was to teach and their misbehavior got in the way of that. It got in the way of their classmates learning, and not just things they were supposed to learn, but also things they wanted to learn.

I want to end this post by saying, “so, you have good kids and bad kids in a class, but then you do this, and it works,” but I never figured out what that this was. Maybe as a teacher you never do.

2 thoughts on “Problem Children

  1. Ugh, this just reminded me of being in junior high myself. Where I suppose I was one of the bored / good students who thought they could manipulate the teacher, sometimes by default. I would raise my hand often the first few weeks, make sure the teachers knew my name and that I knew the correct answers, then disappear and not talk unless called on for the rest of the year. Our class sizes were fairly large, and the teachers were overwhelmed. They were too busy dealing with the bad students to realize I wasn’t participating all year long.

    Of course being an early class goody-goody had its drawbacks, too as all the bad kids knew what I was doing at first (blatantly sucking up) and justifiably picked on me for it.


  2. Yeah, I was the same way. In fact, I remember once in 8th grade being a jerkwad during some Civil War movie we were watching during history class. Talking, laughing, throwing balls of paper across the room at my friends. It was dark, so the teacher couldn’t see who was engaged in shenanigans, but when the lights came up, she blamed a good friend of mine, who was previously prone to shenanigans. When he rightly said it was me, not him, the teacher didn’t believe him and laid into him for blaming “a sweet boy like Austin.” Part of me felt great for realizing that I could get away with almost anything and others would take the blame, but another part felt crappy for getting my friend in trouble, and mostly I felt like a total dweeb for being known as “a sweet boy.”

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