Face up to how you feel
It's not the workload, the pay or the discipline: it's just one pupil. When a group of 1998 secondary education graduates from Leeds Metropolitan University got together, after one term in post, to talk about their experiences, some astonishingly similar experiences were revealed.
"I can't describe it really, I would just have to say there's this one pupil who is a just a pain."
"Everything's been super, the kids are lovely and the staff are wonderful, but there's one girl who makes me feel a victim."
"I'm in a special school and a lot of the kids have behavioural difficulties, and you expect that, but there's one who I just can't cope with. He's got hearing difficulties, and I know he says abusive things about me in sign language behind my back. I feel I can't let him get away with it."
None had found general class control and discipline a problem but almost all had one pupil -sometimes a pair acting together - who were making life difficult, and sometimes in ways they found hard to describe.
An approach to dealing with individual pupils who make teachers' lives a misery was put forward almost half a century ago by a teacher trainer working in the United States, Rupert Dreikurs. His book Psychology in the Classroom, published in 1957, presents a simple framework which identifies the pupil's problem and helps teachers make use of this knowledge to cope with the feeling of being victimised.
Rupert Dreikurs was well aware that it was easy to offer advice from a safe distance and filled three-quarters of his book with examples supplied by teachers of the techniques being operated.
First, the book says, fit your actual feelings about the child into one of these categories: irritated, challenged, hurt. If you are no more than irritated by the behaviour, the child is an attention seeker. If the child ceases to be a nuisance when corrected, but only momentarily, then this diagnosis is confirmed. The solution is to give extra attention when the child is being good and try to ignore or be dismissive of misbehaviour.
If you feel challenged (if you find yourself thinking, "I can't let them get away with that") then suspect a power-seeker. If the child's behaviour persists when corrected, then this diagnosis is confirmed. The solution, less easy this time, is to calmly state the rules and offer a choice: You can obey the rule or stay after school (or whatever is appropriate). Avoid challenge, authoritarian demands, or threats.
If you feel hurt, and the behaviour gets worse when corrected, suspect a revenge-seeking child. This is the most difficult problem to cope with and the most uncertain of success. Be patient, state the rules calmly, keep offering encouragement in the face of hostility, and avoid nagging and anger.
Solving a problem makes you feel good in itself, and helps you see the pupil's troublesomeness as their problem, not yours. (Of course, there is much more to do for the child than control them in the classroom.) With most children you can check you are right about their motive there and then by tentatively asking them.
For the attention seeker, you ask: "I think you want all of my time don't you?" For the power seeker: "I think you want to be in charge here don't you?" For the revenge seeker: "I think you want to punish me for something don't you?" If you are right, the child will show recognition in their expression, perhaps embarrassment. If so, you've made a start. You've shown them what they least expect - that you take them seriously and want to help. From now on, it can't get any worse; and if it doesn't get any better, at least you feel better. You now have some professional knowledge which brings professional detachment. Like a surgeon confronted with a hopeless case, you are regretful, but not distressed - sorry for the individual but secure in knowing you're doing your best.
Mick McManus is principal lecturer in teacher training at Leeds Metropolitan University. 'Psychology in the Classroom' by Rupert Dreikurs, Staples Press, London, is available in libraries.