Teaching students that display a constant pattern of atypical behavior seems to have a significant impact on teachers (Webster-Stratton, 1982). The following is a list of emotional responses teachers often experience as a result of having atypical students in their classes.
Bewilderment: Atypical students often bewilder their teachers. It can be difficult understanding what actually causes atypical student behaviors. As a result teachers often feel they have tried everything, nothing seems to work!
Exhaustion: Exhaustion is another variable teachers often used to describe what it is like working with atypical students. Teachers feel exhausted at the end of the school day; in many cases they are simply trying to get by with the hope that the student matures, outgrows the behavior, or moves to another classroom. In fact, some teachers have indicated that when they finally get home they are too tired to deal with their own children. All they want to do is lie down and take a nap.
Inadequacy: Many teachers blame themselves for the atypical student’s difficult behaviors. They may feel responsible because they do not understand the behavior and do not know what to do to help the student make the needed changes or improve his or her behavior.
Guilt: As a direct result of feeling inadequate and responsible for the atypical student’s behavior, teachers often express a sense of guilt for their inability to help the student change their behavior patterns.
Anger: It is not unusual for teachers to express anger when discussing the behavior of atypical students. Anger is often the result of an inadequate understanding of what is causing the student’s behavior and may indicate a lack of satisfaction with their failed attempts to assist the student.
Revenge: As teachers become increasingly frustrated they may begin to experience a sense of revenge, and start acting out their anger and guilt. Responses of revenge are acted out when teachers begin to compare students, call the names, label students, or in general send messages that the student is not good enough. Calling names and comparing students is often insidious.
The Reactions of Teachers Exacerbating Misbehavior
Many teachers seem to be unaware of how just negatively they often respond to atypical students. As a result of teachers’ increasing frustration, it is easy to fall into a pattern of responding negatively. When teachers respond negatively to students, the student’s behavior is actually reinforced. On many occasions I have heard teachers says things like, “Why don’t you act good like Billy?” “Look at Susie, try to still like her”. Or, “I had your brother in my class two years ago; he was a really nice little boy, what happened to you?” These types of responses to students are all comparison and put-downs. For example, when a teacher says something like, “Don’t go thinking you are all grown up”; “Look at me when I talking to you young man”, or, “Don’t act like such a baby”; these are all statements that are essentially calling the student names, and is an attempt to control the student through intimidation. This is called playing the Shame and Blame Game. Let me assure you as a psychologist, you will never be able to embarrass a student enough to make him or her behave. In fact, students have far more ways to make teachers miserable than teachers have to make students miserable. Responding to students in a negative fashion can occur so often until teachers simple get into a habit of such responses. In some cases teachers become so use to responding to students with negatively comments, sarcasms, or comparing students, they do not even realize when they are doing it or how they sound.
However, negative responses are not only verbal, they can also be non-verbal. Think about a time when you were in the classroom, perhaps you had given your students an individual assignment to work on quietly at their desk. Maybe you are seated at your desk grading and recording some long over due tests. The room is relatively quiet, then suddenly there is a loud commotion in the back of the class; perhaps a book fell, a desk turned over or someone yelled. Which student do you look at first? If the answer is that atypical student, you can be assured that your look essentially says: “When there is a problem, I expect it to be you.” These responses label students and actually reinforce a student’s inappropriate behavior. Remember the concept of the self-fulfilled prophecy; “students will become what they are told” (Tauber, 1998). When teachers send messages that they expect a certain student to be a behavior problem in class, then students will fulfill the prophesy. Students will become exactly what we expect of them!
As the disruptive behaviors begin to affect those around them, particular response and experiences will predetermine future relationships and involvement. For example, when there is continuous behavior or emotional problems in a classroom, it is not unusual for teachers to lower their expectations, bargain with the student, give up on the student, or in general, just ignore the behavior (Brody and Dunn, 2002). All of these responses are designed to avoid potential conflicts of trying to get the student to complete a task or behave appropriately. Barkley (2000) pointed out that it is not unusual for teachers and other adults to begin completing tasks for the student rather than risking a conflict. Parents may complete their child’s chores, or even do homework assignments in order to avoid a struggle. Teachers and parents alike will often do anything to avoid a fight. Parents of atypical children have reported that they often avoid going out to eat or attending an activity for fear their child might misbehave (Buss, 1981).
However, it is not just the parents that are controlled by atypical child’s inappropriate behavior. It is not unusual to find teachers lowering their expectations or allowing atypical students to do as much, or as little of their assigned work as they wish. These teachers will often accept incomplete or sloppy school work in order to avoid a conflict (Obiakor, 1998). In fact, these teachers may allow an atypical student great latitude to engage in whatever activity he or she wishes, or may choose to ignore the student’s inappropriate behavior in an effort to avoid a conflict.
Once this pattern of accepting or ignoring the atypical student’s pattern of disruptive behavior is entrenched, teachers will move into a stage where they basically give up. It is during this final stage where teachers begin to experience a variety of emotions. Research (M D'Souza, 1992) indicated that next to policemen, teachers have the highest rate of affective disorder for any occupation subgroup. The following is a list of emotions that teacher experience when dealing with atypical students for an extended period of time (Johnson (2000).
Depression: Depression was identified as the primary emotion experienced by the vast majority of teachers that work with atypical students. Situational depression is often described as anger that goes unexpressed (Lebrun, 1996). But, where can the teacher express his or her anger? It certainly would be unprofessional to express one’s anger to the student. What would happen if the teacher expressed to the parents their frustration? The parents would likely blame the teacher for not being able to “control” the student’s behavior. The teacher can not talk to his or her colleague about the difficult behavior in their classroom; they may get a response: “You think you have it bad, you should come to my class”. What about telling the school principal about their difficult students-what would the principal say? “I am surprised at you; you are usually so good with this type of student.” This response really means: “What’s wrong with you”. Lastly, what about telling your mate just how difficult you have it? What would your mate say? “You think it is tough setting up there in an air conditioned room all day with kids, get a real job and you will know what stress really is”. I think trying to explain to someone not in education what it is like to be a teacher today is like trying to explain what a banana taste like. What does a banana taste like? You just have to eat a banana to know the taste. Not having an avenue to discuss one’s anger and frustration leaves the teacher with little alternative but to internalize their emotions. This points out just how importance it is for teachers to have a strong support system of people who understand what it is like to teach difficult atypical students on a daily basis.
Isolation: Isolation is another common emotion experienced by teachers of atypical students. This feeling comes from a perception that no one could possibly understand what it is like to deal with a difficult atypical students. Sadly, this is probably true; most people do not understand the myriad of problems associated with these atypical students. It is difficult to understand what it is like to be on pens and nettles each minute of every day, just waiting for something to happen. It is little wonder that so little academic work gets completed when the teacher is constantly engaged with the atypical students.
Victimization: In some situations teachers may feel victimized by the atypical student controlling every aspect of the day. Teachers can become victims of their anxiety and fears that at any moment the atypical student may do something that will disrupt the class or hurt someone.
Trapped: Some teachers reach a point to where they feel “trapped” in an endless cycle of dealing with disruptive classroom behavior. This feeling of being trapped will come when a teacher realizes their entire day is planned around the difficult atypical student. Teachers describe this anxiety as “like walking on egg shells,” just waiting for the next outburst or conflict. The teachers may become hesitant to plan a field trip, or reluctant to go out in public with the student for fear of what might happen.
Lack of Satisfaction: It was not surprising to find that after many years of teaching, teachers, especially those of atypical begin to lose their joy for teaching. When teachers do not enjoy being around students it usually shows. How is this lack of satisfaction revealed? Teachers may arrive at school with time to spare, but wait in the parking lot rather than going into school building; it shows when teachers stay in the teachers’ lounge until the last minute before entering their classrooms, or when they tend to look at the clock every few minutes, just waiting for the bell to ring so the student can leave. The atypical student can also impact on the parent’s behavior. Parents may start using after school programs or child care more than is necessary. They may allow their child to not complete a homework assignment in order to avoid the dreaded “homework wars”.
Over Involvement: Some teachers may become overly involved with certain students. They are determined to help the atypical student, even at the exclusion of other students in the classroom. When this type situation occurs, the student’s success is often tied directly to a teacher’s own sense of self-worth. When teachers, or for matter parents, become obsessed with the a student’s success it is not unusual for them to begin doing things for the child that he or she could easily do for themselves. Over involvement is referred to as enmeshment will lead to greater dependency and irresponsibility by the student.