Difficult Student Relationships: The Paper Crane

Building solid relationships with your students is, hands down, the most important part of teaching. Every single other aspect of teaching is much much easier if you have put some time into this.

But. Every now and then, you will end up with a student that doesn't respond to your respectful but firm boundaries. Sometimes the problem is them, sometimes it's you, and sometimes it's down to forces beyond either of your control. 

I had a student like this. Bilal (name changed, obviously) had a very difficult home life, and acted out in school. I tried the usual, followed the behaviour policy to the letter, and quickly learned that all that was happening is he was getting more and more frustrated with me, the school, the work and life in general. Our teacher/student relationship was extremely poor, and getting worse. The lessons I had with him were frequently disrupted. 

Then I stopped, and thought. The system wasn't working for this kid. Detentions were pointless, and they just made him angrier. I could exit him, and I did for the sake of the other students, but I wasn't putting anything back into trying to get back on track -- into trying to repair our difficult relationship. He wasn't learning anything, and until I spent some time trying to figure out a way to break the cycle, neither was I. 

One day after a difficult lesson, I asked him to see me in the Media Studies department after school. Some of my other students were scattered around working on the computers, and I sat next to Bilal and made a paper crane.

Then I gave him a piece of paper and showed him how. We sat for twenty minutes folding origami.

While we worked, I mentioned that my dad taught me how to do this when I was a little kid. He replied "what kind of dad does stuff like this?", which was a heartbreaking insight into his life. When he had made a few cranes,  I thanked him, and sent him home. He took his cranes with him. 

It didn't completely fix the problem, but it made a difference. It was the first step towards a better relationship.

Here are the factors that I believe had an impact: 
  1. I sat next to him, not across from him. He didn't have to make eye contact or look at me. 
  2. I showed him how to do a simple, immediately productive and satisfying thing. 
  3. Making a paper crane is a physical and concrete action, unlike English (the subject I taught him)
  4. There were other students around, being quietly and happily productive.
  5. It was a positive interaction that had no expectations around it relating to his behaviour in my lessons.
  6. I shared a simple, personal detail about myself and he, perhaps unknowingly, did the same. 
Of course, it doesn't need to be a paper crane (but they're easy -- just google how to do it. They come with some pretty beautiful stories you can share with students while you're working), but taking some 'humanising time' with difficult students is something that is really important, but also really easy to avoid doing. 

With the intense, immediate demands and pressures of your teaching life, slowing down and spending this kind of time on one student can feel like a bad idea. But, it's an investment. 

Do you have any stories like this? 


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