How to Love Hard-to-Love Students

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With Valentine’s Day this month, it’s a great time to talk about love. If you ask any teacher you know if they love their students, they will of course say yes. But, as a fellow teacher, I’m willing to bet you’re currently serving students who are hard for you to love. If not now, then you probably have in the past. Spoiler alert: I was one of those hard-to-love students, so I know I can help you here.

By the way, here’s the podcast of this post in case you’d rather listen:

Hard-to-love students can be any child from any background. These are the students who may make you dread work a little more. Maybe they’re talkative or have behavior disorders that ruin the flow and peace in your classroom. Maybe they’re just rude, or they never take a bath, or they never have any of their supplies.

Do any of those bring a student, or several, to mind?

Would you agree that they make your job a little more difficult?

Those are the kids we’re talking about today.

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What is love?

Webster’s Dictionary gives this as the definition for the noun, love: “Strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties.”

Take notice to the words “personal ties.” When students come into the classroom, there is your personal tie. When we’re thinking about this, we’re not talking about being imprisoned with this child by a ball and chain.

To serve our students, we must care for them, we must build these personal ties to them. Let’s find some ways to love them so that they can learn and succeed at their optimal level.

As educators, we have to agree that every child deserves the very best education from us that we can give. That means we have to have this love for them and build personal ties that help us be strongly affectionate and caring for them. This doesn’t always come naturally, so we have to work on it a bit. Or maybe work on it a whole lot, depending on how hard the child is to work with.

Now, I’m going to give you some stories and advice on how to accomplish this with even your most difficult, hard-to-love kids.

I used to believe that students were wanting to ruin my day. I took everything personally and thought that maybe they were a little more evil than I gave kids credit for being. Now I see everything completely different, and that came with experience and reflecting on my childhood, the kind of kid that I was, and the way that teachers reacted to me.

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Tip #1: Always Assume the Worst

Did that take you by surprise? I don’t mean to assume the worst about the student himself. I’m talking about their background, their life at home, or their past.

What have they been through?

What are they going through?

Finally, what are the things that you do not see during the school day that could be affecting this child and making them more hard-to-love?

We don’t see it all, and we’ll never know it all. Every child comes with their own history. They’re a large book filled with many chapters that you’ll never get to read. When you assume that a child came from a really horrible, awful background, you give them permission to be loved.

Maybe it isn’t true. Maybe we’re talking about a student who is completely spoiled and has been given everything they ever wanted by these loving parents. But here’s the thing. You don’t know that for sure. No matter how well off a child is, that doesn’t mean they are loved or cared for properly.

Assume that they have had a hard life, because many kids, whether you accept it or not, have seen hard times that have affected their behavior.

A Little Hard-to-Love Backstory

I’m going to tell you about a second grade teacher and the time that he made me eat from the trash. I hope that by sharing this story, which is really hard for me, you’ll open up some new perceptions of your students.

At one point in my life, my mom married a man, and we moved to Columbus, Ohio. Now, ya’ll know I’m a country girl. I’d been in the mountains to that point and now I was in an inner city school. Of course, I stood out like a sore thumb. My second grade teacher was a man, and I know that the moment that I walked in his classroom, I became one of these hard-to-love students for him.

First of all, I wore thick glasses. I am legally blind, so there’s the disability part. I was also shy and scared to speak because I had this thick country accent that all of the other kids laughed at. On top of all that, I was so dirt poor I smelled, I wore raggedy clothes, and I never had the supplies or things he asked for us to bring to school.

I guess all of those problems really weighed him down and he started to see me as an enemy rather than a child who really was capable of doing lots of things. So I guess with time, I sort of drug him down.

How it Happened

One day we went on a field trip to the zoo. My teacher told us the day before that if you didn’t have money, that zoo food is very expensive, make sure you pack a lunch. There was no money at my house, and there was no help to pack a lunch. So that morning I got up and found an old purse. I found some hamburgers and hot dogs from a grill out two or three days before. I wrapped them in foil, put them in the purse, and there was my lunch for the day.

Well, we rode a bus part of the way to the zoo, and then we walked the rest of the way in the smoldering sun. Man, it was hot. I packed that purse around with me through the whole zoo. At one point, I started smelling this rotten smell. It was the lunch that I had packed, and it smelled horrible.

I was hungry, but there was no way I could eat what I had brought. Everyone sat down at the picnic area and started to eat. Of course I was completely embarrassed, so I just pretended to take a few bites, and within about two minutes, I took the bag and dumped it into the trash.

Here came the teacher. He had no idea the food in that bag was completely destroyed. Maybe all of the problems I gave him up to that point just became too much at that moment.

When he saw me throw the food away, he said, “I will not allow you to throw all of that food away that your parents have sent with you. You should appreciate what you have more than throwing it away. Take it out of the trash right now and go sit down and eat it.”

So, I did what he told me to. I picked the unopened food back out of the garbage. I went back over to my spot all by myself, and I sat down, and I forced as much as I could down to my stomach.

A Little Hard-to-Love Perspective

Now, I know this sounds like a horror film, but it happened to me. When I think of that teacher, now that I’m a teacher, I have a lot of pity on him. Here’s why.

I don’t think he was a horrible human who wanted to make me eat from the trash. Instead, I think he was a person who misunderstood and underestimated what my life was like. He assumed that my behaviors were personal to him and I was just trying to make his life harder.

I think we all do that. That’s why I’m advising you to assume the worst when it comes to your kids. He may have thought I was just wasteful. Of course, I was never wasteful as a child, because there was very little to waste.

He probably also thought I was disorganized or had a bad memory when it came to bringing things I needed. Maybe he thought I had bad hygiene.

Whatever the case, if we assume the worst, we give ourselves more permission to love our students. Even if their life is incredible, assume that it is not. That way we give them some slack and build that love for them that they need to be successful.

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Tip #2: See Them as Your Own Child

Of course, they’re not yours, but what if they were? What if that hard-to-love child sitting in your classroom giving you all this trouble was your baby? How would you want the adults in their life to act toward them?

Would you want a teacher who is constantly frustrated and dreading work because of your baby? Absolutely not. You would want someone who would be affectionate toward them, even if they don’t deserve it, because you want what’s best for your child.

If you don’t have children, this is a little harder. I didn’t have my first child until my second year of teaching. When I became a mommy, I understood the day I dropped my baby off to daycare, all I wanted was someone who would love and care for her when I was not around.

This doesn’t mean you have to accept their bad behaviors. All it means is when you think, “What if this was my child?” you make better decisions for that child. You step away from the teacher role for a minute and realize all children need to be loved. They deserve to be loved.

As their teacher, if you find that love by seeing them as your own, they’re going to reap all the benefits from that.

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Tip #3: Spend More Time With Them

You’re probably thinking, “Toni, I don’t like them, why would I want to spend more time with them?”

This can really be the key to unlocking your problems with this particular hard-to-love child. Pick out that student and find some special time in the day to spend with only them. If you spend time with them, you’ll learn more about them. Sometimes in the hustle and bustle of the classroom, we forget to make personal connections with our kids through conversation.

When you set aside time to speak with them, things will begin to unfold. You’ll see things you didn’t see before, learn information about them to help you like them more, and the relationship you form will help you love them more. You’ll be surprised to see just how much your attention will help them improve as well.

Think about it, Teacher. Are you going to do your best for someone who never takes time to listen to you? Trust me, I have worked with administrators who have very little time to talk to me. It’s like they want me doing my best all the time, but they really don’t care for me at all. That is so insulting. I want to work for someone who cares enough to ask me about my day, know the names of my kids, all of those things.

Transfer that over to your students. Do they have a dog? What do they play on the weekends? What’s their favorite sports team?

When you build relationships with your hard-to-love students they’ll love you more, and in turn it will be easier for you to love them. Being a primary teacher reminds me of that song, All You Need Is Love.

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You Can Love the Hard-to-Love Students!

Teacher friend, you’re making a difference. Keep loving on all those kiddos. The ones who are hard-to-love are often the ones who need it the most.

If you’re looking for more ways to up your teaching game, here are 3 Teacher Bad Habits to bust this year.

If you’d like a community of people who love their kiddos and find joy in their teaching, head on over to the Primary Teacher Friends Facebook group and request to join. We’d love to see you there!

XOXOXO

Toni

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