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February 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 5

When Students Are Our Teachers

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What if we thought of our most difficult students as opportunities to learn?

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Here's a paradox: We teachers are skilled in the art of teaching, but often we don't recognize the most teachable moments for ourselves. These are moments in our classrooms or careers that challenge us and make us grow for the better, moments in which our students are teaching us to be better teachers—if we would only learn.
Shortly after having my first child, I was at my wits end and came across a book called A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield (Bantam, 1993). I was a typical teacher, looking to books for answers to my problems—in this case, a chronically fussy baby.
One passage caught my attention. Kornfield talks about the small, daily challenges that undo us one knot at a time—the student who doesn't have his homework again, the colleague who snips at you unfairly, that parent's e-mail with a certain tone questioning how you handled an incident with her child. Kornfield, a Buddhist monk by training, suggests that for one entire day, you imagine that everyone and everything you encounter is your teacher, a personal Buddha existing solely for your growth. Whatever crosses your path—no matter how terrible—Kornfield suggests treating that person or experience as a teacher giving you the lesson you most need in that moment.
I tried this and experienced a radical shift. I'd been focused on the exhausting demands of new motherhood and what a difficult time I was having. On the "Buddha day," I saw my son not as a crying, anxious being who sapped all my energy, but as an opportunity to cultivate patience. And I realized, almost lightheartedly, that I really needed that opportunity. My son was a teacher—and I hadn't realized it.

Button-Pushing Buddhas

Alert to this idea when I went back to teaching, I was stunned to realize that my classroom was full of Buddhas—especially the students whom I've had a hard time reaching. All teachers know there are particular students who get under our skins, the ones who push buttons, challenge authority, challenge our lessons and assignments, act as if they're just daring us to disagree with them.
These students can torpedo morale. I recall being unable to sleep some nights because I'd be so irked about what a student had done or said in one of my classes. For most of my career, these students—usually male—drove me crazy. I put on a brave face, but I loathed having these boys in my class, challenging me—a young, female teacher—with crossed arms and glowering gazes. I just wanted them to go away.
But Buddhas rarely do go away. Kornfield—and motherhood—had me considering my students in a new light. I soon began to embrace these "nightmare" students and welcome them into the fold.

It Was All About Jack

One of my best teachers in this regard was Jack, a high school junior who monopolized all discussions, loved to shout down everyone else, and relished saying things to provoke his classmates or me ("Women are whiny"). Early in my career, I'd have agonized over having Jack in my course and felt that he was ruining the class dynamic by being an intellectual bully. But after reading A Path with Heart, I began to see Jack as an opportunity to do two things: ask myself what I most needed to learn as an educator, and reach out to a kid who wasn't expecting it because he worked hard to push others away.
Early in the year, Jack's mom scheduled a meeting with me to make sure I understood his unique qualities, one of which was challenging his teachers and going head to head with them. She explained that he'd had a teacher his freshman year that he hadn't liked; Jack didn't believe she was a good teacher because she didn't teach grammar. In a clash of personalities, Jack and this teacher battled all year. The battle involved many meetings with parents and administrators, and Jack's mother felt that a lot of negativity could've been avoided with a different approach. I was grateful for these preemptive insights and vowed to "kill 'em with kindness," as my mother always advised.
From the first weeks, I understood the challenge. Jack loved to hear himself talk and think. I use a kind of Socratic seminar in my classes called SPIDER Web Discussion. The approach requires students to discuss a topic in a balanced, collaborative way and assesses the class's performance on each discussion as a whole group so students all get the same grade. Any student who leads the group away from good collaboration with his or her individual behavior, whether shy or boisterous, brings the group grade down.
Jack stymied the process by responding to every single student's observation throughout every discussion. The pattern of our discussions was such that one student spoke, and Jack responded. Another student spoke, and Jack responded again. A third student spoke, and Jack responded to her. Jack began every response with, "I agree," or "I disagree." I realized that Jack believed discussion in English class was an exercise in deciding whether or not he agreed.
I tried a variety of tactics. I talked at length during debriefings about the importance of having a balanced discussion, not letting one person dominate. This subtle message was lost on Jack, who continued to believe discussion was all about him.
After a few days of this kind of fruitless discussion, when I happened to be talking with Jack one-on-one about a separate issue, I took advantage of the occasion to encourage him to be more of a leader in discussion, to use his talent and intellect to help raise the level of conversation by asking interesting questions rather than always spouting his opinion. During the next class discussion, Jack did ask a couple of interesting questions, but as soon as one student gave a brief or superficial answer, Jack swooped in with his own insights, unable to let the conversation develop without him at the center.

… Until It Wasn't

Jack was trying my patience and my repertoire of tricks, and he was affecting my morale. I went back to the drawing board. How could I get Jack to listen—really listen—to his peers and allow them space to communicate in a way that didn't seem like a punishment to him? That's when I hit on it: roles.
I designed a series of roles for the whole-group discussion that asked different students to accomplish different tasks. One role was to be the "feedback giver," a student who doesn't participate at all by speaking but takes copious notes on the discussion—what went well and what could have been stronger, given our rubric. The first time I assigned Jack this role, he stayed silent the whole class, then gave very critical feedback on all the ideas the students didn't discuss—or discuss well enough—in his opinion. Another role was "three question asker." Students in this role could speak only three times during the whole conversation, with each contribution being the best discussion-inspiring question they could think of. Once Jack had asked his three questions, he tuned out completely. He began to do homework for another class. It was still all about Jack.
Yet another role was "host." This role asked students to be aware of any peers who weren't actively involved in the discussion and to invite them into the fold. The day that Jack was asked to be host, he was responding to a girl's comment (for the umpteenth time) with, "I agree, but … " and I saw him catch himself and remember that he was supposed to play host. Not playing the role adequately can affect the class discussion grade, and Jack cared a lot about grades.
Jack awkwardly turned to a bright, insightful student who also happened to be shy and asked, "What do you think, Marcus? What did you find in last night's reading?" Marcus didn't skip a beat in sharing what he'd noticed reading Tobias Wolff's In Pharaoh's Army (Vintage, 1994).
"There's this motif related to watches and time, but specifically to watches." Marcus went on to cite three quotes about watches from the reading, a nuanced and insightful look at the relationship between time and death in the text. I was impressed; I had taught the book twice before and had never noticed the clear motif. Jack was also impressed and nodded enthusiastically. He hadn't noticed the watch motif either, but it made perfect sense to him, and he seemed excited by it. "I agree," he enthused while underlining the passages.
During the debriefing of this discussion, I focused on that moment and showed how Jack, someone who usually has trouble allowing others to share their thoughts, had tossed the ball to Marcus—and we'd all benefited. It was a perfect illustration for Jack and everyone else of the erroneous thinking that shy people have nothing to say and that the loudest kids are the "smart" ones with all the right answers. This was a turning point for the discussions in general. I think it might have been the first time that Jack realized he could actually benefit from others in the room, especially from someone shy.
For the few months that remained in the school year, Jack was noticeably less "alpha" during discussions. His aggressive approach to answering everyone abated; he was still a very active participant, and he loved to challenge others and disagree, but the edge was gone. There was far less arrogance in the way he spoke. Marcus's insight had truly excited Jack, a bright student who wanted to see everything important in a text. When he finally realized that it had taken his own silence to allow that important textual detail to emerge, there was a subtle but real shift in his behavior. I think we all breathed a little sigh of relief.

Embracing Our Jacks

This situation is one example of how a challenging, abrasive student—one who put off teachers and peers alike—offered me a learning opportunity as an educator. I could push back and push Jack away and feel justified in doing so because he was so difficult and his behavior was often counterproductive. Or I could see Jack as a Buddha, an opportunity to push past my own limits, to invent new ways of reaching students and helping them work through their own intellectual and social blocks.
I learned something about myself, too. Reflecting on this situation with Jack, I realized that I needed to be a more inclusive educator, inviting many different kinds of voices, experiences, and critiques to the table. I wasn't always good about that, crusader that I was for certain values.
I also found that when I reached out to students like Jack and made them feel especially valued, something unexpected happened: The Jacks of the world became my favorite students. How had I never noticed that they were so insightful? So honest? So creative? How had I stopped at that outer, abrasive layer and not seen the funny, critical mind underneath? As I responded more warmly to such students' questioning natures, they, too, softened and became more engaged.
Keeping up with some of the Jacks from my past, I've seen them grow up to do extremely interesting, creative things: become fluent in Japanese, get PhDs, and act in films. This has made me realize that these difficult kids were creative, natural learners—and wonder why, when I generally encourage students to question everything, I'd recoiled when kids like Jack tried to question me.
So I thank Jack Kornfield for teaching me that we sometimes need to embrace difficult realities, if only to see that what seems like a menace is actually an opportunity. Both the other Jack and I benefited from my view of him as a Buddha, not a nemesis. It takes humility and patience to approach challenging kids in this way. But if you do, you may find that your least favorite student (or parent or colleague) becomes your greatest teacher yet.

Alexis Wiggins has worked as a high-school English teacher, instructional coach, and consultant for curriculum and assessment. Her book, The Best Class You Never Taught: How Spider Web Discussion Can Turn Students into Learning Leaders (ASCD), helps transform classrooms through collaborative inquiry. Alexis is currently the Curriculum Coordinator at The John Cooper School in The Woodlands, TX.

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