As a teacher, you often wonder what you can do about problem students. You may have received counsel to be a friend to problem students. A colleague may have assured you that kindness will solve the problem. Maybe a superior warned you that you had to get a handle on the situation. To date, however, you have succeeded in little more than increasing frustration.

Teachers, if you ask what you can do about problem students, you may be looking at the wrong side of the coin. Flip it over. The question you want to ask is not what you can do about problem students, but what you can do to become a solution teacher.

In this article series, we examine three steps you can take to become just that – a solution teacher. In Part 1, we looked at the importance of building respect to become a solution teacher. A teacher who never takes time to calculate the value of each student will never become a solution teacher. If you have not yet read that article, or have not yet begun the construction of that kind of respect in your life, I hope you will take time to read it now.

Plato’s Apology quotes a statement made by Socrates at his trial, just after Socrates chose death rather than exile from Athens. Socrates said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.”

While we cannot agree fully with Socrates, we can say that teachers who never reexamine their life character from time to time, dealing honestly with what they find, are likely to remain teachers who ask what to do about problem students. They fail to become solution teachers.

Once you have examined your respect for each student, it is time to move to the next character trait of a solution teacher.

LOVE – Build strong love into the center of your life. Love for ourselves comes naturally to most of us. An understanding of authentic love shows that even those who appear not to love themselves actually do engage in that action. Yes, love is an action, not merely a feeling. Love is a verb.

Begin by mastering this definition: “Love begins by seeking to understand as completely as possible the person who is the object of my love, and then acts to do what is in the best interests of that individual, even when my actions may appear unkind, and even when those actions demand self-sacrifice on my part.”

Act to Understand.

Undertake a conscientious effort to understand each individual student. Include all students, whether problematical or delightful trouble-free. Don’t rely on abstract thinking. Don’t limit this effort to one or two hours. Using computer or paper and pen, create a page or two for each of your students.

1. Understand student character.

Using a good list of character traits, evaluate each individual student.

character trait list sample

As you evaluate each trait, note each student’s strongest and weakest character qualities. Remember, you are becoming a solution teacher – look for solutions as you work.

– Jacob shows great diligence and loyalty, but you can’t give high marks on self-control.
– Tyera excels in creativity, but wants for cooperation and patience.

After you have evaluated each student, ask yourself a few questions. Does Jacob’s weakness in self-control offer a key to his rebellious actions in the classroom? Is that lack causing him to bully others? If Tyera built cooperation, would she also become more patient and settled?

Clear identification of students’ character weaknesses and strengths increases your understanding of each student. That understanding forms a powerful tool in striving to do what you can do about problem students.

2. Understand student home life.

A lack of understanding about student home life makes it difficult to deal with problem students.

That was the case when Rebekah (fictitious) began to cause problems in the eighth grade classroom of a school I served as principal. After Rebekah spent the first two months of the year as a cooperative student, her teacher noted a sudden switch to truculence. In my office, Rebekah pouted that her mother no longer cared about her. Under gentle questioning, Rebekah admitted that her mother had become ill, but the 13-year-old thought the illness didn’t keep her from doing things for the other children in the family. A check into the home life showed that the mother had become ill, but the real cause for Rebekah’s unaccustomed belligerence in class was her approaching birthday. She knew her mother could not prepare a treat for the class. Rebekah desperately wanted to celebrate her thirteenth birthday at school.

Use parent-teacher meetings to learn what you can about home life. Make occasion for relaxed one-on-one talks with students to ferret out burdens they may carry daily from home to school.

Act to Do What Is Best

Love does things. Most people agree that love does kind things for the people we consider objects of our love. Love offers kind words, hugs, kisses, gifts, etc. Yes, love does those things for people toward whom it acts.

People fail to agree, however, that love does also what appear to be unkind things for the people we consider objects of our love. Love offers tough advice. Love punishes wrong. Love refuses things that are less than best for the people toward whom it acts.

You worked to understand each student. Now, it is time to do what is best for each one in your classroom.

– Jacob? The best thing you can do for Jacob is to help him build self-control.
– Tyera? Make a concentrated effort to help her develop patience and cooperation.

How do you do that? You have more than twenty students in that class. How can you find time, or make time to give Jacob and Tyera that kind of personal help?

Love makes a way and, in this case, you need not limit the help to one-on-one work. Don’t neglect vital one-on-one time, but include Jacob and Tyera in a solid character-building program for the entire class. Access the many tools available.

Schedule a Character-Trait-of-the-Month lesson for the whole class each week, and begin with the weak traits you identified. Display character trait posters in prominent locations. If possible, place them near the desks of Jacob and Tyera. Read books that show self-control in action. Ask older students to read Stinky Skunk’s Self-Control, imagine themselves teachers, and write out how they would explain it to a young student or sibling. Do the same with Pansy Pig’s Patience Pit and Dorrie Donkey’s Cooperation Camp. I have used this approach with high school students who initially protested. I knew it was doing what was best for them, however, and they soon came to regard it entertaining. The trick was in all pretending they were instructors. The assignment became even more meaningful when we were able to arrange for the high schoolers to visit real elementary classes with real listeners.

Spend time one-on-one with Jacob and Tyera. Tell each you want to help develop a trait he or she is sure to want. Sell the positive aspects of self-control, e.g. you do not become someone else’s slave. Those who allow others to make them do wrong are slaves of those others. People who allow others to pour them into a mold of their own making become slaves to those who made the mold. People who control themselves (self-control) make their own decisions. They make their own choices. They build strong character.

Make Personal Sacrifices

Teachers – what you can do about problem students is to act in love, including both the soft side and the tough side of love.
Teachers – what you can do about problem students is to act in love when it demands personal sacrifice on your part.

If you love your students, you are willing to sacrifice yourself for their good. You are willing to use personal time to gain understanding of every student. You are willing to ferret out helpful information about student home life that may affect school life. You are willing to invest whatever you can of your own life to turn your students’ feet from problematic character weakness to trouble-free character strength.

Solution teachers use love to do what is best for every student – including those so-called problem students.