Troubled Youth – Troubled Learning

While the title for this post does not always ring true, in my few years teaching at Title I schools, it often reflects reality.  In fact, rarely does a day go by where no student disrupts the classroom learning environment for one reason or another.  As a fifty-something, I knew this going into teaching; what I did not know was how deleterious these disruptions are to continuity, sanity, and in the limit: opportunity, for my students, not me.  As someone in the classroom every day, hoping above all hope that my students can break out of their behavioral binds, it challenges my every fiber of existence to keep the class focused on our learning objective(s) for the day.

Troubled youth make for troubled learning, not only for themselves, but for everyone in the classroom.  It is a huge force multiplier of the negative type.  In spite of what is heralded as the balm for these troubles, compassion, empathy, and other soft moves are frequently insufficient to overcome years of ingrained indifference, frustration, anger, resentment, or a host of other emotions, feelings, or attitudes that have overtaken an adolescent overwhelmed by his or her circumstances.  The older the youth, the more deeply embedded the issue or issues.  Now, extend this to multiple adolescents in a classroom, and you get a snapshot of teaching in a Title I school.

Today, for instance, I taught three block periods: two of which are split into two sections apiece of algebra 1 and algebra intervention, and one AP  Calculus AB section.

The AP Calculus students are rarely ‘egregiously’ troublesome, aside from the fact that they have yet to realize that frequent side conversations among the eight groups of four students each frequently distracts others; it’s reminiscent of the “one meeting” missive folks may hear on occasion during business meetings.  At times, when teaching these students, it feels as if I am an onstage performer at a dinner theater with the audience commenting back and forth to each other about their meal, the show, or what not.  Periodically, I tell them that the classroom is not their living room, or a movie theater, where they freely watch or chat as they see fit during “the show.”  They seem a bit startled when I make them aware of their behavior, which puzzles me even more; it is as if I am the first and only teacher to ask them to consider their impact on a classroom.  Notwithstanding their surprise, I persist, as I do not believe college professors will tolerate their behavior any more than I do, for the majority of my calculus students are college bound this fall.

Yet, this is not a post about my privileged students, who make up most of my calculus students.  For they, mostly, are buffered, or far removed, from the intense psychosocial trauma faced by many low-income families.  Simply put, they live free from most of the burdens of poverty.  Burdens which manifest themselves in low-income families in ways that often inhibit students from attaining outcomes at the same level as those more privileged for the same level of effort.

My most challenged students, behaviorally and academically, frequent my algebra sections, whether algebra one or algebra intervention.  Their presence cannot be missed: whether visually or aurally.  While it only takes one student to derail the trajectory of a class, it is a rare day, indeed, when only one student in a class acts to call attention to themselves.  The duration, intensity, and frequency of the derailments vary based on the class composition.

In the face of these ever-present disruptions, a teacher must: keep students’ attention focused on moving forward with their learning; address the momentary outburst and its subsequent ripples throughout the classroom; do his / her best to stay passionate, motivated, and encouraging; all the while without having a mental breakdown.  I say that somewhat tongue in cheek.  However, it is not too far from reality.  Whoever mentioned that a teacher has nearly as demanding a job as an air traffic controller was pretty close to the truth.

Which brings me to the student who inspired this post, someone who reminds me of how my younger, now deceased, brother might have been in school.  My brother was often truant.  He ran with the wrong crowd, experimented with things I never knew existed at his age, and dropped out of high school shortly after starting.  My brother may have been one of the silent ones, the student who attempts to disappear among the thirty or so classmates.  He might have giggled frequently chatting away with his classmates.  Regardless, he did not learn.  He missed out on that opportunity as he was deeply troubled.  I will not go into details except to say that his burdens were too much for him.  They may have been too much for his teacher, if they manifested themselves while in school: I simply do not know.  What I do know is that I became a teacher, in part, to help those like my younger brother, of whom this one student reminds me.  In the face of my frustration with this young man, who rarely participates positively in class, who seems to possess a boundless ability to draw negative attention to himself throughout a class period, who failed first semester and is on track to do the same this semester, I hope with all of my heart that he wakes up soon and understands how important it is to his future that he pay attention in class, attempt some of his homework, and learn as much as is humanly possible, for he is quite intelligent in spite of what he may believe.

I will not hold my breath.  I will encourage him as often as possible in between addressing his behavioral shortcomings, for they do impact the class.  His mother is at her wits end and unsure what to do about him.  I believe my parents felt similarly some thirty plus years ago.  Life is amazingly complex.  Teaching is crazy hard.  It drains me nearly every day.  Yet, there is rarely a day I do not wish to drive out of my driveway headed to my classroom.  Troubled youth are waiting for me.  I only hope I can soothe their troubles with learning enough to keep them on a path to graduate.  Only time will tell.

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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15 Responses to Troubled Youth – Troubled Learning

  1. Dave says:

    Dave, It’s interesting how you seperate the AB Calc students from the others. Same school; should be similar socio-economic but they are maybe smarter, certainly more motivated to learn. Look for what is really different; prob a parent or two who is able to exert the willpower to make them understand or another adult force.

    Some of the others should probably be in another school environment; it only takes two or three in the class to destroy most learning as at HS level they exert powerful negativity. You have to make it very uncomfortable for them to save the rest; I call it academic triage; you may not agree. Like on the battlefield.


    • Hi Dave.

      Most of my calculus students live in a vastly different world than my algebra students, who are mostly low SES while the calculus students come from high SES. The SES gulf leads to an opportunity / achievement gap given the differences in environments, supports, etc. While triage is apropos metaphorically, it is not realistic as up to a half of my students in those classes are nearly immune to most behavioral interventions. With compulsory education, the options are limited when you attempt to balance academic outcomes with behavior.

      BTW, what’s the status on your NY Regents attempt?


  2. Jerry Heverly says:

    As Dan Meyer said in his TED talk: “I teach high school math. I sell a product to a market that doesn’t want it, but is forced by law to buy it.”


    • Good point, Jerry. Dan’s comment is spot on. In some ways, the compulsory form of public education inhibits many students’ appreciation of its true significance and importance. This decoupling of benefit / consequence from cost / behavior removes the feedback loop intrinsic in self-correction. Hence, students errantly drift off course; over time, they end up far beyond the ability of most extrinsic motivators to guide them back on course. As such, teachers must frequently, and as early as possible, engage students in a discussion of the consequences of their actions, or inactions, in hopes that one or more students recognize the reality of their situation. So far, it is too soon for me to know if my efforts have been in vain or have helped. While I believe, and hope, they have helped, I know for sure that this modicum of success is far from enough, which should be considered 100% in an ideal world.


  3. Jim says:

    Trying to force someone to learn something, such as mathematics for example, when they have no desire to learn it is one of the hardest things in the world.


    • Exactly, which is why it cannot be forced, or it will fail. It’s the old maxim, you can lead a horse to water…

      My approach is to appeal to students’ genuine desire to graduate high school: I believe 99% truly want to graduate; they simply do not know what is required to do so compounded by not being held accountable while not being “supported” to do so. Support must come from the family in addition to what the school and teacher provides; otherwise, most students will not make it because they are too young to understand the significance of their education. Many twenty-somethings realize that they should have paid attention in high school when they are confronted with supporting themselves and a family. I try to paint that picture for students but the cocoon of adolescence neutralizes my attempts.


  4. I have run into the same “dinner theater” problem, all the way down to the students’ surprise (and sometimes outrage) that I would expect them to give me 100% attention during the lecture portion of class. They are incredulous when I tell them that their talking disrupts other students’ learning. Worse, though, is that my co-teacher also thinks I’m taking it too far to expect the students to fully listen, and she confirms what you suggested – other teachers do not demand the students’ attention during the lesson. I’m baffled by that.


  5. Jim says:

    When I was in school long long ago I hardly remember any talking in class. On occasion when a child talked to another in class a simple oral reprimand from the teacher was all that was necessary to end it.


  6. On occasion, that suffices with my students, too. The quiet lasts for a very brief period of time, often measured in seconds, or a minute or two at the longest before someone else carries the baton. Sometimes, the student who was asked to be quiet nods, yes, then simply returns to their conversation. Makes me truly wonder sometimes about the future of our society…


  7. gflint says:

    Classroom management issues like this are now the norm, not the exception. I think one problem is the teacher no longer has any teeth to what they case do in the way of discipline. Send a student to the office and the teacher gets a reprimand for not managing their classroom, hold a student after school and parents complain and coaches go nuts, in school suspension is a vacation for the students, and giving a grade for behavior is a waste of time because the students that are problems usually just do not care. I also do not feel the main problem is the student, but the parent. Good parenting usually solves all the problems. That is not something teachers can influence but it is something teachers are blamed for.


  8. Pingback: Go Make A Difference | Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher

  9. My two (least) favorite responses from students being asked to stop disrupting are “what? What was doing?” with an eye-roll of disgust – just own it, buddy, so we can both move on – or “But I’m not the only one; why are you picking on me?”

    My hardest dilemma comes from knowing that some of these kids really would snap-to if I called home, but probably because they’d get a beating.


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