Imagine looking at your register on the first day after half-term and seeing a new name there: Donald Trump.
You’re immediately apprehensive. You’ve heard about Donald from your colleagues in the staffroom. You know that he’s unpredictable and has a reputation for challenging the status quo.
But he is in your class now, so you will have to find a way to manage him.
When faced with a student with a difficult personality, some teachers will either try to ignore their behaviour – not feeding the attention-seeking and hoping it goes away – or to shut it down immediately with sanctions.
These approaches won’t always work, though. And what then?
Listen to your 'Donald Trump'
As a pastoral carer in a secondary school, I have spent the past six years dealing with students who have been removed from their lessons for being disruptive, using bad language or expressing views that could be said to promote racism and hate.
The most pragmatic advice that I can offer is to make time to listen to the thoughts of these students.
The ones who express the most unappealing views often do so because they feel their identities are being challenged. They may have fears, which they feel are not being heard by those around them. These fears are often unfounded, but still need to be aired and picked apart, together with a trusted adult, in order to reach a solution.
It is no easy task. I have spent hours listening to students complain about how things are "not fair". But, slowly, I have come to understand the world from their point of view and, through dialogue, the students themselves have eventually started to appreciate situations from other points of view.
There are a few simple steps that you can take to open up dialogue with these students.
- Firstly, you must find common ground. Acknowledging a shared joke, opinion or even that you support the same football team can be enough to show that there are things you like about each other. Establishing a genuine rapport is important if you are going to do any meaningful work.
- Find a safe place where you can both "lay your concerns and thoughts on the table". Use this terminology to explain the process to the student and stress that this must be done without judgement.
- Work together to break down the feelings that the student might be having and to reframe these into tangible problems that can be solved. Why does a certain lesson make the student angry, for example? And what can we do to address that?
Dialogue alone is not going to fix a student’s behaviour, but it is the only place to start if we are going to have a chance of changing how they interact with others in the long term.
Those who don’t feel listened to or, as Trump calls them "the forgotten man and the forgotten woman" exist in our communities – and in our schools.
It is our responsibility, as teachers, to open up constructive dialogue with those students and ensure that everyone has an identity and a voice in our communities.
Eleanor Kirby was head of house at Millthorpe School in York and is now studying for a MA in education at the University of Manchester
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