Note: while much of this can be generalized to all students and the reader can think of ways in which it applies to them and their classrooms, the article is written with high school in mind. Interpret it appropriately for your age group since the basic concepts are applicable.

Bad behavior is not simple either to define or to handle. Observably bad behavior is clear or at least so it seems: breaking a physical school rule such as dress code; breaking a psychological school rule such as respect; breaking a procedural school rule such as handing in homework or talking during silent work time. A few teachers never seem to have “that” kind of bad behavior in their classrooms; others have it all the time; most are in the middle. Even in these behavioral types, seemingly easy to spot and deal with, there are myriads of differential details. Is that shirt really untucked or just loose? Is that skirt at knee level when reaching for a book in the library? Disrespect feels different from an A student than a C student! This student’s failure to hand in homework – once in a blue moon – is very different from that student’s failure to hand in homework – every week. The daily behavior of students is monitored by adults against their history, their achievement levels, and their sociability, their gender, and their color, among other parameters.

Principle 17 of the Top 20 Principles from Psychology for K-12 states that effective classroom management “is based on (a) setting and communicating high expectations, (b) consistently nurturing positive relationships, and (c) providing a high level of student support”. Work in the field of sociology helps us with the insight about “resistance as a type of nonconformist behavior that publicly questions the legitimacy of the current classroom social order.” These two positions – the teacher as support and success provider alongside the student as resister and competitor for status and control – recognize that school is a very different place for adult and for student. There is a seeming alignment in that the student wants to succeed personally and professionally – the aim of the paid professional as well. But the means of success that school provides is often frustrating and meaningless from the student’s point of view.

Daniel MacFarland notes that student resistance can certainly disrupt the classroom (occasionally to the extent that a teacher might even leave the profession or retire early), but can also improve it as students negotiate ways of doing things better with the teacher. We have all experienced student negotiation although we may not have termed it such or even realized it was happening – switching partners for group work, or rethinking the date of a deadline are common examples.

MacFarland notes that the classroom is too temporary a structure for discontent to rise in the same way as in workplaces where individuals work together for years at a time. We note that in lower school, the reverse is true with the homeroom being a place of comfort and going to specials becomes the place of negotiation. Of course, if the homeroom is truly a place of resistance, it is often evidenced by the family leaving the school, a form of collective resistance. In the middle or high school where students move from class to class, resistance is often private and carried out at home or in conversation with peers in student banter, jokes, resentment, mockery, or acts of opposition (‘forgetting’ to do homework etc.).

What is a teacher to do, constrained by curricular requirements and bound herself by the school’s rules (spoken and unspoken) and social mores? We have three suggestions:

  1. Have the conversation! Whether it is within peer groups, departments or teams, the division, or even entire school, talk about student misbehavior. Of course, many schools have created teams to support students including the student’s teachers, the counselor, the principal, the learning specialist and others. But this intervention, while critically important to help individuals, typically is asking the question what it is the student needs or lacks and how can the adults provide it. The misbehavior / resistance conversation comes from a different place. It asks the question: what is it that adults are doing that is resulting in students’ (mis)behavior, do we understand the issues, and what steps can we take to mitigate or eliminate them? A typical example is the resentment students evince towards a policy that there not be more than two tests in a day or that homework should not take longer than a certain length of time. The conversation would treat such issues seriously and not brush them aside. As or more importantly, the conversation would periodically interrogate deeper issues that result in some students being successful and others not being successful. Evaluation schemas that demean the individual and diminish motivation are an example here. Note that motivation is a canary in the mine when it comes to resistance.
  2. Like all students equally. “Schooling is a punishing experience that adolescents grow weary of as spring arrives” (McFarland p. 653). The good news is that students behave differentially in their various classes (at all ages). It is thus clear from the literature and from our own experience that what we do as teachers actually matters in the classroom. Maybe unsurprisingly, students who are succeeding are less likely to resist. The primary objective of the teacher then is to ensure that everyone in the class is succeeding. If that is achieved, classroom control is less in question and the students’ desire to challenge that control diminishes. This sounds obvious but observation leads to the comment that teachers tend to “like” their better/best students more than their less successful students and it shows. Liking all students and desiring each student’s success, and working proactively with each student is key to student satisfaction with a class.
  3. Create norms of resilience, supportiveness, and ambition from the beginning of the year. “Classroom social networks and instructional formats explain a great deal more about everyday acts of defiance than background characteristics” (McFarland p. 663). As the teacher of an individual class, you can have confidence that the students in your class will behave as the norms of the class dictate. Irrespective of how they behave in other classes or the corridor or the cafeteria, the classroom is its own unique social setting. It is key that it is a place where the teacher’s (healthy) norms are in place thus disrupting the social network norms the students bring with them. Within the context of the teacher’s norms of resilience, supportiveness, and ambition, teacher or student-centered modes of instruction will work equally well. Where the students’ norms are in place, the teacher will have to retreat to teacher-centered modes of instruction to maintain control. In other words, you can teach the way that’s best for the subject when you have established your own dominant social norms.

Whether your classroom has obvious forms of student misbehavior aka resistance or whether your classroom has more subtle forms of resistance evident, all classrooms are places where the teacher and the student have different agendas. Aligning those agendas for effective learning and for each student success is largely under the teacher’s control. Ensure that there is an open dialogue about (mis)behavior, ensure each student is ‘liked’ and that every student’s success is equally important, and that the classroom norms are those of the teacher and hopefully of all teachers in the school. In such circumstances, students and teachers can expect to have productive years of learning together.