Dealing with difficult people in your Middle School Classroom

So much of the teaching approach in my middle school choir as well as the philosophy of  S-Cubed, my sight singing program for beginners, is based on having fun with your children and rewarding them for accomplishments when they achieve something significant on their journey toward learning to take the dots, curves, letters, and symbols off of the page and turning them into music.   

I absolutely LOVE doing things with the students that fire them up and get them excited.  The song my students were singing in the above photo is one of my favorites and theirs too because we get to use fog machines and flashlights, and we do it in the dark!  

Finding ways to make teaching fun for you means the students are more likely to be motivated to strive to do their best work...especially when they sense that you WANT them to succeed.  

In my classroom, I work to create a team-spirit. Every voice matters no matter at what level a student works.  Our aim for the students is to encourage personal growth.  Our "little Mozart" needs to learn a thing or two about sight singing, but so does the little girl who has never done anything with music except read words off a page and sing from rote.

Look at the picture below!  Our mini-concert was the same day as "Crazy Hair Day".  I encouraged them to go for it!  Take a close look below!  

Teachers who use a similar approach can bring out incredible things from their students because the kids WANT to give their best for that teacher.  

Unfortunately, those same teachers can be viewed as push-overs and "too nice" by students, administrators and parents alike, and ultimately, for all of us, the tests will come.  We must be ready to face them.

I believe that we teach people how to treat us.  In our work place, children, parents and administrators do what we allow them to do.  

I believe in a strong, assertive approach to dealing with difficult people.  It is necessary, sometimes, for us to speak up for ourselves in a way that can, at times, be uncomfortable.  We must be willing to confront difficult situations, and handle them head on.  It isn't easy to do, but NOT doing so has its own set of consequences.  The stress we feel from not handling difficult people in our professional environment will manifest itself in some way somewhere down the line.  I believe it is best to address whatever the issue is, talk it out and move forward in a professional way.

Have your ducks in a row...

#1:  To confront difficult situations effectively, we must have all of our "i's" dotted and our "t's" crossed.  Our expectations have to be clearly articulated from the very beginning of the year. 

#2:  We must also be able to realize when we, ourselves, have dropped the ball or been wrong. In that case, we have to admit it, apologize for it and make the appropriate concessions.  If we have some sort of "god-complex", it will ultimately bite us in the behind somewhere along the way.  We are fallible human beings like every one else.  People perceive it when we send out the vibe that ours is the only way and the right way, and we lose support from everyone who experiences that attitude from us.

#3:  When people sense in us that we are compassionate, that we listen, and that we are flexible, they are more likely to respond well when we are faced with a situation like the ones I'll address in this blog series.

The Situation-Poorly Behaved Student and a Parent
Who Blames You

This completely capable, intelligent 6th grade child who does not have an IEP or SST of any sort turns around in his seat and talks while you are teaching. He doesn't begin his "bell-ringer" activity at the beginning of class as the other children do.  He snickers and laughs a lot, and it is disruptive by singing purposefully out of tune to make others laugh.

He does it not because he has undiagnosed ADHD, but because he can.  Somewhere along the way, his parents have indicated to him that they will always listen to him and that the teacher is often at fault.

...but pretend you don't know that piece of information yet.  

To save his dignity, I try to find non-verbal cues while I teach to get him back on track.  I walk near him.  I look at him.   He doesn't receive the cues.  So, I discreetly ask him to come talk to me after class...always maintaining his dignity.  I ask why he believes I've asked to speak with him.  I let him talk.  Doing so can often prevent any further steps on your part because, if we've built proper rapport and trust with the children, they will often admit what they've done and promise to do better.  If that is the case, I always ask if he'd like his seat moved.  I let him "drive the bus" on that decision.  If he says yes, I move his seat right away.  If not, I leave it alone, but I always end with this, "This behavior is disrespectful to me in the following ways....  Have I ever been disrespectful to you?" must be 100% positive that you're ready to hear this answer.  If he says yes, you must be willing to hear it, learn from it and be willing to assess yourself.


It is key that we must always treat our students with dignity and respect.  In my view, respect is a circle.  We ALL must give it in order to receive it.  The "old school" view of "I am the teacher, therefore, you must respect me" is completely outdated and didn't work at all for me during my first couple of years teaching this age group.  It just made the kids angry at me all the time.  I believe that approach also leads to frustrated, bitter teachers who aren't happy in their jobs, but that's another blog post for later.

I always end my conversation with my 6th grader like this..."If you fix it, nobody has to know we had this conversation.  If you do not fix this, I'll be in touch with your parent."  I say it in as light a way as possible, but I make sure it's clear, and I make sure that I am looking at him in his eye.

Most students fix it, and all is good.

For the sake of this post, let's assume he did not change his behavior.  He continues to disrupt in ways described above. My frustration grows.  He takes other children "with" him, and the atmosphere in the room has begun to shift in a negative direction making learning more difficult.

This child needs a wake up call, and I need to get my classroom back.

I don't give second warnings.   I stopped years ago.  Word spreads when you don't follow through.  The kids talk!  

So, I swiftly follow through and, as promised, I email his parent.

I prefer email to phone calls for a multitude of reasons...especially on the initial contact.  It has a date stamp, and ultimately, if I've planned well, it will work in my favor down the line when the administrators end up with this young man in their office.  With email, we certainly have to phrase our words carefully, clearly, and compassionately, but that is important to do anyway.  

I always begin the email with something positive.  "Your child exhibits leadership in the following ways....Your child is very smart and that is demonstrated in how he voluntarily answers questions in front of the rest of the class."

Then, next, as objectively as I possibly can, I share with the parent the behaviors that are unacceptable.  I use language like this:
*He turns around in his seat.
*He talks and giggles while I am teaching.
*He sings out of tune on purpose to make others laugh.
*He doesn't begin his "bell-ringer" activity on time.

I avoid language like this:
*He is disrespectful.
*He is rude.

...Just the facts.  No judgment.

I end the email with the following statement in order to demonstrate that I wish to partner with the parent to find a solution:  "If you have any suggestions for me that can help us help your child have more success in the classroom, I welcome them.  If you have questions or concerns I've not addressed, please let me know."

Three days pass.

The email comes, and it is filled with all sorts of language that makes it clear that the parent has asked the child what is going on, the child told half-truths or lied altogether, the parent believed the child, and rather than hold the child accountable, the parent reprimands and blames you.

What do you do?

The next step is simply to respond immediately and ask for a meeting with the child and the parent and you.  In your email, you will not respond in anyway to any of the allegations.  Is she is willing to reprimand you without sitting down and talking, that is all you really need to know.  

You should remain emotionless and move to the next step.  You will simply write, "I would like for the three of us to meet together."  

You will leave at least 3-5 options for meeting times...mornings and evenings.  You must make it nearly impossible for them to use the excuse that they "can't make it".

Protecting yourself from parents who are bullies...

You will ask a co-worker to sit in on the meeting because this is clearly not going to be a supportive parent.  I am always careful to protect myself from "parent bullies".  These are the parents who always believe the teacher is at fault, and they are aggressive with teachers in conferences.  They are a rarity, but in my 23 years, I've encountered two.  I was very grateful to have had a colleague with me.

From this moment, one of three things will occur:
1)  The parent will respond, show up to the meeting and the three of  you get to work together to help the child.
2)  The parent won't respond, and you will suddenly have a well-behaved child sitting before you.  It's a "miracle".  In these instances, I believe that Mom or Dad must have said, "You better not make me have to come up to that school."  :-)
3)  Or...The parent won't respond, and the behaviors continue.

With any response or non-response, you must proceed.  Hearing nothing is hearing something.

If the parent responds, and shows up to the meeting, it can go a variety of ways. 

Working toward the positive solutions through the meeting:

I always greet the parent and child warmly and look into their eyes. You can learn so much from that brief moment.  Are they nervous? Defensive?  Open?  Closed?  

I start with some positive things.  "Mark is very smart.  He answers questions correctly in front of the class almost 100% of the time he attempt to answer aloud."

Then, I cut to the chase...

I often like to ask the child to speak first and to name the areas in which they think are weak.  They usually have a difficult time lying in front of you, another adult and their parent.  Sometimes, however, if I have a child I believe is fully capable of not telling the truth in that situation, I take control and describe the behaviors.  I often refer to the child and ask them to elaborate and share.  My goal is to create a dialogue.  I don't want to lecture.   

Sometimes, as a solution to the behavior issues, I suggest an agreement in which I send a daily "grade" form home with the child to be signed and returned by the parent the next day.   In the conference, I clearly describe what "good behavior" looks like for that particular child.   I leave a space on the document to write notes in addition to the grade.  "Today, he began his bell-ringer immediately upon entering the room", for example.   I try to be specific so we can help get the child going in the best possible direction.  It is up to the child to ask me to sign the document daily, and I make that clear in the conference.   I get the parent and the child to sign the agreement that states their responsibilities.  This creates personal accountability on the part of the child and the parent.  

It also creates a wonderful rapport between the student and me because he starts to feel positively about his work in the classroom when he gets immediate recognition from me.  It only takes a few seconds each day.  We usually do it for about 2 weeks.  By then, the new behaviors are in place, and the child is feeling good about his work in your room.

Belligerent Parents...

If, in the conference, you are faced with a belligerent parent who is unwilling to cooperate and continues to blame you for all of the problems with this child, here are some suggestions:

I always remind the parent that I have as many as 85 children in a classroom, and that it is not ok that this child is disrupting the learning of the other 84 children in the room.

I also usually say something like this with those particular parents in hopes of awakening them:

"I will be teaching your child for "X" more months or years.  Your child will be with you for a lifetime.  If someone doesn't begin holding him accountable for his poor choices soon, ultimately, it won't be me who is picking up those pieces, it will be you.  Between now and (whenever your time ends with him), I will be holding him accountable.  Here is how:   His grade will be impacted, and I will be writing up disruptive behaviors to the administrators.  The punishments will be In-School-Suspension, Out-Of-School-Suspension and eventually expulsion is possible.  I want to remind you that this class is not required.  If he is unhappy singing in chorus, or if you truly do not trust my ability to treat your child fairly or impartially, he can be moved from my class to another class during the next nine weeks.  Here is the form you'd need to sign to start that process."

I rarely have to use this option, but it can happen, and we must be willing to allow it.  It isn't personal.   It almost NEVER comes to this point, but when it does, you have done due diligence, and will almost undoubtedly have the support you need from your administrators.

My primary focus is creating a learning environment that allows the majority of my wonderful 300 students to flourish and learn.  When something or someone stands in the way of that and is unwilling to work with us toward helping their child improve for his own benefit and for the benefit of the rest of your class, our attention must turn to protecting our own flock.

By the time it gets to this point, you have created lots of email documentation to prove you began the conversation and worked on it with the parent.  

No show and No change

If the parent doesn't come to a conference, doesn't respond to any emails, and the poor behaviors continue, I email again and
"cc" an administrator.  I also call the parent and document the time of the call, and since very few people answer the phone these days, I leave a detailed voicemail.  

Realizing that I am probably dealing with absent parents, I try to find some more positive solutions for that child.  "If you behave well today, you can come to my desk at the end of class and get a Starburst" or whatever positive recognitions you may wish to try.  

If that doesn't work, I've collected my documentation, done my due diligence, and I begin writing up the incidences to the administrators.  This is always a last resort when we discover that we have absent parents because we, the teachers, may be the only ones who expressed to this child that we care about him.

Almost ALL of these efforts are avoided when we reward positive behaviors in our classroom, demonstrate compassion, listen to our children and make learning fun!  That's way I choose that option whenever possible!

Stayed tuned for the rest of the blog entries in this series.  In this three part series, I will share some ideas that have worked for me when dealing with difficult colleagues and administrators in the future posts!

Two things we must always remember:

There is always a solution.
Inaction is matter who is taking it (or not taking it).  It's up to us to determine how to act based on that action or inaction and make the decision that works best for our children and for ourselves.

To learn more about the S-Cubed Middle School Sight Singing Program, click the photo below.

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