After six years of teaching and over ten of working with youth I've really come to realize that my favourite students to teach are the troublemakers. You know the type, they won't sit down in class, they talk back to you, they purposefully try to make you angry and just generally disrupt the entire class. I just love this student, and any student that resists schooling and teachers from the moment they walk into a classroom. Their presence in my classroom gives me a rush of excitement because I know that I have a student who will not only be a great challenge to engage in the learning process, but I have a student who has entered the classroom who already knows how to think, act and stand up for themselves. Not all students can say that.
I've worked with all types of youth. I've worked with youth in affluent suburbs in southwestern Ontario, I've worked with working class kids in the maritimes and I'm currently working with mostly Indigenous at-promise youth in Edmonton's Inner City. No matter the setting, there are always a group of "troublemakers" who intend to dismantle my "authority" of the group. And every time this process starts, I get a smile on my face as it creates the greatest learning opportunity for all of my students.
Because these "troublemakers" have a natural affinity to challenge the status quo, they've spent most of their lives in traditional schooling in detentions or getting suspended or even expelled. What many schools and teachers fail to realize is that there is no amount of rules, consequences, punishments or "strong authority figures" that can change the behaviour of these youth. Many youth are not programmed to do as they say and follow rules just because they are rules. Many youth, when they feel disengaged from their learning, lash out at a system that makes them feel insecure/bored/a wast of their time. As educators we need a new approach of how we incorporate these students into our classrooms.
What we need to realize is that these "troublemakers" are not the problem. Issues within our classrooms and schools are not because of "a few bad apples". When we place the blame of our problems on individual behaviours rather than the systemic root of the problem, then we actually end up negatively impacting the lives of students. Instead of seeing the problems of our classrooms with a few "bad students" why don't we ever look at ourselves and think about the conditions in the classroom that encourage this unwanted behaviour to arise. If our schools and classrooms are authoritarian places where students are told what to do, how to do it and there is little space for questioning and challenging, then we will inevitably create scenarios for students to rebel.
Instead, we should work to democratize our schools and classrooms to bring the "troublemakers" and all other students into the conversation of how the school is run and what rules we should follow. In my time as a teacher I have worked hard to create a democratic space in my classroom with students to give them an authentic voice into the class rules, how they are assessed and how we should handle challenging classroom issues when students are causing disruptions. I practice restorative justice in my classroom and most of the time have students sitting in a circle so we can all see each other and speak purposefully in our conversations.
The most success I've had with "troublemaker" students is to just listen to them. Ask them how their life is going and if there is anything I can do to help them. Don't waste your time getting mad and angry at them. That's the most likely reaction they've received from adults their entire life. Be a kind and patient ear to listen to the issues that they face and the struggles they have in the classroom. Ask what you can do to help them find success with school and make them an important part of the classroom experience. Put them in charge of a classroom duty so they have a purpose in the classroom and they are an important part of how the class operates.
Most of all, tell ALL of your students that in the short time that they are in your life that you love and care for them. And although there may be times that we don't all agree and we challenge each other, it's important to understand that it always comes from a place of love and caring. After all, as teachers, this is the most important part of our job.