Teachers – What You Can Do about Problem Students – Part 3

Teachers who ask what you can do about problem students, take heart. Despite your own experience in the past – despite what others may have told you – there are indeed things you can do about problem students. The question you want to ask is not what you can do about problem students. You want to ask what you can do about becoming a solution teacher.

The first two parts of this article series looked at two of three character traits you will want to build to become a solution teacher: respect and love. You can review those here.

In this final article, we turn to a third vital character trait for teachers:

RESPONSIBILITY – Students of all ages jump quickly to attribute fault to others. When two so-called problem students fight, each blames the other. If a pile of books falls to the floor as a group of students passes your desk, Mr. Nobody must take responsibility.

Students use such behavior, but so do teachers. People assign to others responsibility for their own unacceptable actions in order to deflect negative consequences and avoid punishment.

responsibility wantedTeachers, what you can do about problem students is to realize that responsibility is needed.

Teachers make a mistake if they consider responsibility no more than a trait that is nice to have but not necessary. Parents, principals, and superintendents give teachers responsibility for student learning and student well-being. They hold teachers accountable for how well they fulfill those tasks, and teachers should hold themselves accountable as well.

That is only part of the story, however. Teachers should also give students responsibility, and hold students accountable, i.e., show them that every action has consequences. Consequences are a part of responsibility.

What is responsibility? Responsibility begins by determining what task, duty, or action is yours. It then gains knowledge of what is involved in that task, duty, or action. At what point can you say you completed it? What are the consequences of completion or incompletion? Once you understand fully, you act to carry out that task, duty, or action to the best of your ability, always ready to give an answer (accountability) for what you did or did not do.

To become a solution teacher, you must examine your own life in the light of that definition. Make corrections where you have not shouldered the responsibilities that are yours. Work to be fully accountable for every responsibility, making no excuses.

Students become problems in the first place because adults failed to exercise responsibility. Between birth and arrival in your class, those problem students never took in the fact that every action has a consequence. No one ever told them, e.g., that stomping in mud puddles results in dirty clothing, for which they are responsible – not friends that urged them into the puddle. They never learned that failure to get up when an alarm clock rings results in tardiness, for which they hold responsibility – not a parent that gave up nagging them out of bed.

But was it your responsibility? Few teachers are willing to take blame for producing problem students, but a few hours of quiet classroom observation would reveal that they do take part. Permit an observation from an actual classroom. The student’s name is fictitious.

    Nathan – The high school teacher sits lecturing on history. Near the back of the room, Nat slumps, a large notebook propped open on his desk. The notebook hides his hands and part of his face. He glances at the teacher periodically, but soon looks back at his busy hands. It appears that Nat is taking copious notes on the lecture. With a few steps, the observer gets a better perspective, and realizes that Nat is not engaged in learning. Nat is carving graffiti into his wooden desktop. As far as Nat is concerned, the teacher is wasting his lecture.

Teachers – what you can do about problem students may be answered quickly simply by exercising responsibility. Nat’s teacher failed to exercise responsibility for Nat’s learning. He slid by day after day by sitting at his large desk and giving scholarly lectures, no matter what his students did. Nat’s teacher failed, too, to exercise responsibility for Nat’s well-being. He seemed to be satisfied as long as classroom behavior was not disruptive, and missed Nat’s grief at the loss of a brother. Nat found an emotional escape in class, and became a troublemaking student outside of class. Nat continued to carve until a new teacher decided to stroll the room while lecturing, uncovered the artistry of mental escape, and fulfilled a responsibility to Nat.

That teacher explained responsibility and consequences, and sent him to a teacher who had experience as a cabinetmaker. Nat undertook a sanding project under the tutorship of the other teacher, sanding his own desk and several other stained desks. He then learned how to finish the desks. In the process, Nat began to take pride in his work and to look forward to the woodwork.

Nat’s teacher didn’t leave it at that, however. Nat still carried the emotional burden, so the teacher arranged to have coffee with his parents in an effort to understand the boy. Over the following months, Nat, his parents, and the teacher drew together in a friendship that lasted long after Nat graduated successfully and went on to university.

Teachers themselves must conscientiously exercise responsibility before they are in a position to teach and encourage problem students to carry their own responsibilities.

How do we teach students their need for responsibility? Review the list you made while studying the second article in this series. Which students show the greatest weakness in this trait? Begin one-on-one work with those students, selling them on becoming responsible. Explain how the exercise of responsibility rewards. Challenge problem students to do what so many others do not do. Give small responsibilities, increasing the size as students show readiness. Remember to commend progress with sincere words.

As with your study of other traits, take time for weekly focus on the trait with the Character-Trait-of-the-Month Program or the Christian Character-Trait-of-the-Month Program. Display character trait posters as constant reminders. Three books that help are Cubby Bear’s Big Responsibility, Lost on Superstition Mountain, and Date with Responsibility.

Require that capable students search the term “responsibility” on this website to find articles on the trait. Have them read a specific number of articles and report on them.


Keep interest high and motivate with character rocks students can paint when they show good progress in building a specific trait. Encourage students to look for smooth rocks the size of a fist and keep them for the day they get to paint one. Be sure you take photos of the rock painting in lower grades. Send the rocks home as take-home reminders, and display the photos.

What can you do about problem students by tutoring them to mastery of responsibility? You can greatly increase their well-being, improve their academic achievement, and give them a gift for a lifetime.

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