It means that in every class of 25, we have 3-4 problem students. Children are their parents’ mirrors, as well as our own; students often copy their teachers’ behaviour. J.K. Rowling brilliantly showed it with Harry Potter and Dumbledore on the one hand, and Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape on the other hand. She has also taught us that things are often not what they seem: human beings are more complex. Opposites attract; they also vie with each other, often in the same person. Good versus evil, stupidity versus intellect, bravery versus cowardice, nimbleness versus clumsiness…
Let us look at various cases and see what can be done about them.
• Some children and adults are slower than others. One student seems to understand any new topic practically before we finish the explanation; another needs help again and again. It does not mean that one of them can achieve success and the other cannot. What we need to do in such cases is probably go with the flow, that is have enough tasks to occupy the fast learner, and patiently let the slower one catch up. If we are Dumbledores or McGonagals so to speak, we will not jeer and sneer at those who lag behind, and watch it that the other students do not make fun of them or bully them. It helps if we find the time to learn about our students’ interests. Any difficult topic becomes much easier if we offer exercises connected to their interests. For example, when teaching a group of adult American students Russian, I would bring in different texts for everybody to translate. Thus we would listen to reports on jet propellers, pediatrics and bee behaviour in one lesson. It was beneficial for everybody including myself.
• Sometimes students are disruptive because they are bored, which refers both to very talented ones and to the slow ones. Albert Einstein is one of my favourite examples. He was expelled from various schools and pronounced unfit for studies, yet his parents persevered, finding various schools which agreed to accept him. Once he became a college student, it was clear that his “slowness” and “tardiness” stemmed from his being really, really talented in just one field, hence being really, really bored at all the other lessons. Look carefully before forming a judgment on any student, you may be faced with a new Einstein!
• Physically challenged students, be it a disease, or simply a lack of growth, or what they see as ugliness, need our help and encouragement. Again, there are no rules. I had two very short boys in two classes; they simply would not grow. One was the heart and soul of every event, and a brilliant student; the other took his lack of stature as a personal insult from life, and tried to act out at every lesson. I talked to him in private, and cited several examples of people I knew who either grew up much later in life, or remained short but achieved great success. It helped. My grandmother used to say, “You cannot saw off an inch and you cannot glue on an inch to yourself.” I shared it with many of my students.
• Last but not least, there are plenty of people with psychological problems, and serious deviations from what is considered socially accepted behaviour. We are teachers, not psychologists, so it may take a while to realize what the problem is. A child may seem too boisterous or too emotional until a situation occurs which makes it clear that something is seriously wrong with them. And even when we are aware of an existing problem, we cannot always eliminate it. Let us look at some real-life experiences.
A new boy appeared in my child’s first grade. The headmaster explained to us parents that he had serious psychological problems, and as the doctors deemed it advisable for him to spend some time among normal children, he would attend a few lessons a week, with his mother always present in the classroom. He behaved normally until the moment his mother stepped out for a minute; then he immediately threw himself on the floor, yelling and thrashing his limbs. Needless to say, all the children were traumatized, and reported the incident to us. We went to the headmaster, and learned that we were locked in an impossible situation called “Doctor’s orders”. I am not sure that it was beneficial for the boy, though he clearly enjoyed the attention; it was definitely not good for our children. We sympathized with the boy’s parents, yet we worried about our kids. So we arranged a rotation, with one parent staying in the classroom whenever the boy came to school. It worked until the time when the doctors and the disctrict educational authorities decided he had to be transferred to a specialized school.
That was a good lesson for me as parent and teacher. When I came across another such case later, I recognized what I was seeing, and immediately tried to get help. While the child’s parents were in complete denial and the school preferred a cover-up, the other parents in that class worked with me to get help for the child in question, and to safeguard the other children.
What can be done if we encounter an adult student who is clearly disruptive, or maybe even psychotic? Quite often, they are also very talented, and have no trouble fulfilling all the tasks in the curriculum. There is an old saying: if you smell sulfur, call a priest; do not wait for the devil to appear. Meaning, seek help. Ask other teachers, consult specialists, go to the school administration. What works with a slow student or a genius will not work with a psychologically unstable person. We should be aware of that.