One of the most challenging aspects of educating young people is the need to establish productive relationships inside the classroom. Students at all levels need to trust the adult in the room or a difficult job often becomes impossible.
There is a fine line, however, between building individual relationships that are productive and simply being a “friend.” First and foremost, an effective teacher must set the guidelines needed for successful teacher-student relationships. That’s why it’s essential that trust is built upon a solid foundation of expectations for behavior and achievement. Young people, by and large, need firm guidance.
Therein lies one of the foremost challenges for teachers—something that even veteran teachers struggle to accomplish. Young people often resist the correlation between behavior and academic achievement.
Modern society and a changing culture have created numerous impediments to acceptable behavior in a school environment. A primary culprit is technology, particularly cell phones and social media. Cell phones have changed behaviors in an entire generation of young people, and a lot of research supports that contention. Teachers see it regularly in the form of shorter attention spans, a lack of impulse control, and deep attachment to the phone itself.
Occasionally news outlets report on individual school systems taking action to address the distraction of cell phones. A recent report on NBC’s evening news highlighted the policy implemented at San Mateo High School, located near the Silicon Valley region of California, headquarters for technology giants Apple and Google. According to the report, students must lock away their phones when they begin the day at San Mateo.
“You’re here to learn, you’re here to work with your teachers and students, and we started getting away from that because of these devices and how addictive they can be,” Adam Gelb, an assistant principal at the school, told NBC.
Unfortunately, that type of corrective action is so rare that it warrants a report on a national television network.
Technology is not alone in providing hurdles to overcome in creating productive relations within a classroom. Broken or dysfunctional family situations also contribute to student misbehaviors. According to PEW Research Center, the number of children living with an unmarried parent increased from 13 percent in 1968 to 32 percent in 2017. A PRC article by Gretchen Livingston, from 2018, indicated that 58 percent of black children were living with an unwed parent—including 47 percent living with a single mother.
This is not an indictment of all single-parent situations. One of the most polite, well-behaved students in my teaching experience grew up with a single mom. This particular young man, someone I still see occasionally at a local gym, was recently telling me about advice his mother had given him, something he regularly spoke about when he was one of my students. His single mother obviously had made, and continues to make, a difference in her son’s life.
Nonetheless, many in similar situations have little or no impulse control or the self-restraint needed for productive interactions with others.
A growing number of students—it only takes one to create an unwanted distraction—appear to lack the social graces needed for productive relationships with others, particularly adults. The onus is too often on educators to instill a sense of decorum in young people. Many of the accepted behavioral traits long respected by society have eroded. For a variety of reasons—including a lack of impulse control and lack of proper training—many can’t sit quietly while others are talking, can’t respond to authority in a respectful manner, refuse to accept responsibility for their actions, and refuse to respect the personal space of others.
One former student consistently blamed me for his shortcomings in the classroom. He seemed convinced that I was the one responsible for his failing grade. This went on for several weeks as I searched for an approach for us to overcome this particular hurdle. Nothing worked. He began telling me that he simply couldn’t do the work. That allowed an opening. Out of my own frustration perhaps more than anything, I told him his problem was a lack of self-confidence and a reluctance to accept responsibility. While he said he couldn’t do the work, I saw enough to know better, and I told him so. I stuck to this consistently while offering no more strategies. I emphasized that we were going nowhere until he decided to change his mindset, which he did eventually. Some of his project work over the rest of the semester was at the very top of two classes.
As this column has previously pointed out, certain misbehaviors have existed for decades in schools, but the problem has grown worse in recent years, certainly much worse in the eight years I’ve taught high school students.
The biggest challenge comes from determining what we can control—the use of technology, for one—versus the behaviors that are ingrained from years of undisciplined misconduct. Those behaviors are a problem of society rather than things that can be erased in a classroom over the course of a few months.
Ultimately, building relationships toward classroom success requires a long list of traits, including tenacity, initiative, a resolute belief in what you’re doing, patience, and the ability to adapt.
That’s true for teachers. And it’s true for students.
Larry Cothren is a former newspaper and magazine editor who currently teaches marketing at the high school level.