Treat a Student … Score One for Goethe

“Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can and should be, and he will become as he can and should be.”

When he wrote those words, could Goethe have foreseen a modern-day teacher’s reality: student defiance, lack of academic effort, scattered attention, inappropriate language, cavalier attitudes, bullying, and exclamations of “Why me?”

If any of these student behaviors sound familiar to you, Goethe to the rescue!Here is a strategy I have used with much success for more than 30 years of teaching—a strategy that focuses on students as they can and should be. It allows students to escape the poor behavior in which they are trapped and be the cool kids they really are.

Accentuate the Positive

Decide what you wish to see in your students with regard to citizenship, behavior during instruction, and work habits. Then, throughout each day, notice and acknowledge any inkling of those attributes. Your toughest cookies need this acknowledgment most of all, but make no mistake, all students benefit from respectful, positive stroking. The key is to not wait for student missteps. Try “Good morning, Chris. Way to go—thank you for coming in and finding your seat.” (Saying “thank you” is the assumption of cooperation.) “Looks like everyone is just about ready to begin. You guys are all over it. David, you’re on your way— thank you.”

In reality, David probably was not intending to be “ready to begin,” but you’re not waiting for students to misbehave, you’re catching them in the act of behaving, redirecting with uplifting language, and acknowledging them as cooperative students.

Our language has the power to pull students toward us and our instruction or push them away into their own funk. When we constantly admonish, we lose our power to generate an atmosphere of harmony; we allow that power to flow into the hands of our most assertively disruptive students.

Conversely, when we use that power in a positive way—power we own just because we are the professionals in charge—good stuff happens. The trick is to guide by letting students know what we expect, using language that tells them that they are focused, they are cooperative, they are polite, and they are good kids. They will begin to demonstrate these positive behaviors regularly, becoming what they can and should be. You’re not cajoling, but exuding confidence through a positive approach.

One of my students (I’ll call him Jason) was absent. Jason was never absent. Surprised, I asked the students if they knew where he was. “He got suspended, Miss Dempsey,” they replied. As I gasped in surprise, one young lady exclaimed. “He’s not a nice person, Miss Dempsey. He’s just good to you because you think he’s good.”

Beat Them to the Punch

Our language must be preventive, consistent, persistent, and genuine. It only takes a few seconds to “catch” them doing the right thing and say something positive, like “Good job, guys. You’re so much fun to teach.”

If you’re not a particularly positive person, or are of the mind-set that people should not be praised for doing the right thing, this will take some getting used to. You’ll need to practice in front of your mirror. You’ll see progress the first few times you “beat them to the punch.”

Instead of: “I only have 10 homework assignments turned in. What’s wrong with the rest of you?” Say: “I have 10 homework assignments. Let’s see how many more will be turned in on Friday. We can get to 100%. I’ll help you!”

Instead of: “Ryan, that question has nothing to do with what we’re talking about. Try paying attention.” Say: “Ryan, I like that you asked a question. You’re not on topic, but asking questions shows intelligence and interest. Think of a question about our subject and raise your hand again, please. ”

Instead of: “Anna, you’re tardy again. What’s your excuse this time?” Say: “Welcome to class, Anna. We’re on page 95. Join us!”

When you improve self-concept, you improve behavior, and when you lower self-concept you lower behavior.

Do the Right Thing

Middle grades students are starving for acceptance. They want to be told what they do right rather than what they do wrong. They’re going through one of the most difficult periods of life. They are self-conscious, fearful of criticism, reluctant to take risks and consequently, willing to do whatever it takes to stave off the repercussions of alienation.

Let’s not add to their growing pains. They’re in training. Soft words, without patronage, give rise to change vs. challenge. When we bark, they bite. When we instruct and soothe, they save face while complying. They need us to correct them in a confident, humane, gracious manner when they’re wrong. They need to hear from us that they are good people—even those who have histories of tormenting teachers.

A particularly intractable seventh grade girl I had addressed as Sweetheart, haughtily said, “Can I tell you something, Miss Dempsey?” I calmly answered, “Sure, if you’re going to say it politely.” She drew in her breath, changed her tone, and said, “I don’t like to be called Sweetheart.” I replied, “Thank you for letting me know. I understand, because I don’t like to be called Hon.” Her demeanor softened and I was able to redirect her—and she was willing to receive my direction.

“Treat a man as he can and should be, and he will become as he can and should be.” Thank you, Goethe!

Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, October 2012