Perhaps We Have a Wrong Perception of “Naughty” Students

Some time ago, I was asked to conduct a series of two lectures to a group of secondary school students. This was an after-school activity to enrich the kids. The teacher-in-charge informed me that he had made it mandatory for students to attend the first lecture. The lecture hall was packed. Yet, despite the large numbers, you could easily identify two groups of students.

The first easily identifiable group were the quiet students. They wouldn’t do anything to disrupt the class or distract the teacher. They wouldn’t be sleeping, but they would appear to be paying attention (although there’s no way to tell if they were indeed paying attention or not). Normally, these are the type of students that teachers would refer to as good students. They would answer questions the way you expect them to answer, and they would respond in ways that you expect. Indeed they were good, as they gave me absolutely no trouble. These are the students who would make you feel that you are doing well as a teacher.

And then, there was another group of students. They were most easily identifiable because they were loud, vocal, sometimes rude, and often very distracting. They would shout out silly remarks, sometimes relevant to the lesson, sometimes with absolutely no relevance. They were disruptive and often quite annoying. It’s easy to get very frustrated with them, especially since they’re constantly derailing your train of thought, and wasting precious minutes. It is indeed very difficult to teach with students like this.

This second group of students formed a very bad impression during my first lesson with them. I thought to myself that maybe they’re bored or simply uninterested. After all, they were forced to attend the lecture. And so, having nothing else better to do, it seemed a better choice to annoy the teacher by indulging in stupid comments or silly jokes with the teacher or with one another.

But it turns out that I was so wrong in my judgement of those students. When I returned the following week to deliver my second lecture (which this time, wasn’t mandatory because of a variety of good reasons due to time and scheduling on the school’s side), the attendance shrank, but it comprised largely of those same group of students who gave me a very hard time. Sure, there were still some quiet students, but not as many as the very naughty ones.

That, to me, was a huge surprise, and it gave me a profound realisation. Though the lesson wasn’t mandatory, all those who continued to stay in school to attend the lecture were those who had great interest in the topic. They were highly interested, yet for some reason, they could only manifest their interest in very disruptive and annoying ways, sometimes totally irrelevant to the lesson.

It was their way of showing interest, or at the very least, a mechanism to keep themselves constantly attentive to the lesson.

We humans are weird creatures, aren’t we?

Anyway, I think this forced me to rethink how I perceive the behaviour of students in a classroom. I think we all should rethink how we perceive such behaviours in class. Can you imagine how many students have been unfairly punished because their teacher thought that they were naughty, when in actuality, it was just their way of showing their enthusiasm/interest in the subject? This is precisely how we kill the passion of learning in students. At their age, they’re not capable of comprehending that they’re being punished for disrupting the class. They don’t understand why they’re being punished, but it would appear to them that being interested in the subject is somehow a crime. Oh, the irony of learning.

So, if we start out with the assumption that students who misbehave are actually students who really enjoy what they’re learning (but are unable to express it in a constructive way), then maybe as educators, it’s up to us to help channel their interest, enthusiasm and energy into something that will help their learning (and the learning of those in class).

In other words, to put in the extra effort to engage them in ways that make their learning enjoyable.

At least for me (I can’t say it’s true for other teachers), the annoyance and frustration I felt came about only because I was concerned primarily with making sure I teach everything that I wanted to teach in the given span of time. But what’s the point of doing that if you just get frustrated and kill the passion for learning in those kids who are truly passionate?

Some time later, I had the opportunity to teach philosophy again in another secondary school. This time, with this profound insight in mind, I noticed the same disruptive behaviour from the “naughty” students. This time, I changed my tactics and tried to engage those students, questioning them, conversing with them whenever they made stupid remarks. It turned out to make the class a lot more fun and exciting for everyone.

I might not have been able to finish teaching every single thing that I wanted to teach. But at the very least, I’ve kept their fire burning, I’ve kept and maybe even grown their passion for learning and for philosophy. I think that’s more important for kids at that age, isn’t it?

So maybe we really should reconsider our perceptions of seemingly “naughty” kids. Maybe they’re not naughty, but they just don’t know how to express their interest. In which case, as educators, we have to make the extra effort to help them learn in their own way (or at least to show them how to express interest in a constructive manner), rather than to bash them repeatedly with scoldings and punishments only to make them hate learning for the rest of their lives, simply because we wanted to finish teaching what we’ve prepared.

Here’s a picture my students drew for me when I taught as a relief teacher many years ago…

"Study or die!"
“Study or die!”