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What to Do When You Have a Difficult Class                                                                                                                      


crumpled paper and appleEmbrace them! I’m not talking about giving each kid a hug when they walk in the door. In this litigious world, that could land you in a heap of trouble. Every student wants to be recognized and valued—something they may not get at home.


Almost any qualified teacher can do a good job given a highly self-motivated group of students. The challenge is to reach all students—it’s the ones who seemingly don’t want to be there that need you most. Give them your best and you will be rewarded tenfold.


Focus on your students as people first and find ways to show them that you care. What good will it do if you plow on with your curriculum and nobody is listening? Constant interruptions are a sign of disrespect for the teacher and lead to little or no learning taking place.


The worst thing you can do with a difficult class is to not want to be there—if they get ahold of this vibe you are “in for it.” Kids have built in radar or “BS detectors,” and the moment they feel that you dislike them or would rather be someplace else, trouble will begin. Some students are just itching for a fight. They may be mad at the world for the problems they face, because often they have no idea how to solve them. Kids need hope and support, and someone they can trust and believe in—and more importantly someone who believes in them.


For any significant change to take place, you must first connect with your students. So how do you begin? First, remember why you became a teacher—wasn’t it to help kids? Then, make tomorrow your “Day One.” Right at the beginning of class, inform your students that you’re starting over because things aren’t working well; kids appreciate a good dose of honesty.


Now, it’s time to connect. Tell your students about yourself without getting too personal. Let them know why you became a teacher. Tell them that your dream is to help them reach their goals, dreams, and aspirations, and be passionate and sincere in your delivery.


Find opportunities to engage with your students beyond the classroom. Invite them to join you in an extracurricular activity. It could be a canned drive for the needy, creating gifts for sick kids in a local hospital, putting together a skit for an upcoming assembly, starting a school beautification program, or getting them involved in a school team or club.


Mention that you love your job—in spite of its many challenges—and that you are looking forward to working with them. By humanizing yourself and demonstrating a caring attitude you will have begun the process of connecting with your students.


But let’s be realistic, this may be a class that you have grown to dislike, and vice-versa. This could require a complete change in attitude on the part of the teacher. It is imperative that you model the behaviors that you want your students to emulate. For example, did you show up early, greet your students warmly outside your classroom door, and come prepared with an engaging lesson? Nothing screams louder than enthusiasm, that you love your job, so be ready to “bring it” every day.


Above all else, if you want your students’ respect, be respectful of your students. At times this may prove difficult but remember, you are the adult, the professional in the room, and how you conduct yourself—especially in challenging situations—won’t go unnoticed. Besides, who knows what goes on at home, or in other classrooms for that matter? All these things show students that you care and go a long way toward establishing a classroom environment that is conducive to learning.  


Elementary school teachers should take a look at the trailer for Beyond the Blackboard, a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, starring Emily VanCamp, based on a true-life story of Ms. Stacey Bess. (If you can watch the entire film it will be time well spent). Imagine getting your first teaching job at the age of 24 and literally landing in “a school with no name,” teaching kids from K-6 in the makeshift classroom of a homeless shelter. Faced with few supplies, no textbooks, and a dilapidated infrastructure, this young teacher championed the rights of her students, provided the education they needed, and made a big difference in their lives.


If you’ve seen the film Freedom Writers, who can forget the scene called the Line Game, where students are asked a series of questions that force them to take a hard look at their lives. Ms. Gruwell, played by Hilary Swank, got through to her students using their life experience as a vehicle to connect with them. This leads to her students writing daily in their new journals. In the same scene, Ms. Gruwell uses another effective tool—empowering your students. When asked by one of her students, “Does a refugee camp count?” she replies, “You decide.” Giving your students responsibility and making them aware that their opinions count lets them know that they are valued—and this is key to gaining their cooperation.


Another unforgettable scene called “Choice,” from the movie Dangerous Minds, shows a moment when teacher Ms. Johnson connects with her class. In response to the question “Why do you care anyway? You just here for the money,” she replies, “Because, I make a choice to care, and honey, the money ain’t that good.” At that point, she finally cracks the toughest nut in the class who begins the discussion about the topic at hand.



Teaching is a demanding job full of challenges and great rewards. These three films provide examples of teachers who in spite of the challenges that they faced found a way to connect with their students. Their determination, caring, and unwavering belief in their students proved that teachers can make a big difference—even under the most trying of circumstances and even with many of our most difficult kids.


By Jim Gomes, author of Ready, Set, Teach! 101 Tips for Classroom Success

Gomes taught for more than three decades in Ontario, Canada. He has coached youth sports teams and has mentored new teachers on a personal basis and through his educational resource company: J-Go LEARN Inc. Gomes is part of the Professional Learning Series at the Faculty of Education, University of Windsor. To learn more about Gomes and "Ready, Set, Teach!" visit