The end of the year brings opportunities to pause and reflect. I am reflecting on one 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 he would leave the classroom in anger, resulting in more missed hours than I can count on one hand.
Improving our relationship hung heavy on my mind throughout this year. I spent hours in conversation with other teachers, child psychologists, and mentors, thinking up ways to make my lessons more relevant and accessible to him.
Research tells us that challenging students often have an enormous amount of energy, yet they direct it in a way that undermines learning in the classroom. Neuroscientist, Kevin Ochsner says that restorative interventions focus on training disruptive students how to control 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 that was needed could rely on the bond between he and I alone. I was determined to see whether he could harness his tremendous energy and turn it into a positive influence, to become a force for good for the whole class.
Then a breakthrough came. After loudly insisting 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, before moving on to assist other students in doing the same. He continued to improve beyond that class too, going on to pass the end of year exam just two weeks later, a momentous achievement for a student who previously refused to do any work.
This year, I’ve come to realise that schools and classrooms are ecosystems and their success relies on a rich web of strong relationships. Students can find a great deal of purpose in lifting up others, and in contributing to the flourishing of one another’s strengths.
Quite often we expect students to be motivated by their own individual success. But as teachers we know better than anyone else that working on our own growth is not always sufficient; sometimes we need to help students to look for meaning outside of themselves too. 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.
Emotional resilience comes from being a part of a community that values learning with and from each other. Teachers that create the conditions for this to happen in the classroom acknowledge that people can’t thrive in isolation, but rather, thriving is something we must all do together.
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: all young people need a chance to be of value—the chance to more fully become themselves.