Chuck Sandy

Working with difficult students – Chuck Sandy

I Am A Hopemonger.  Are You? Chuck Sandy

Our students arrive at school complete and perfectly human. That is to say, they arrive as people in flux. They are on a journey. Our classroom is a stop along the way. It is a privilege to be with them for the time we have been given together and we must make the most of this opportunity.

Some people will have arrived from a pleasant place. Their journey has left them shining. I love these students. Others will have arrived from some place less pleasant. Their journey’s been more challenging. They’d like to shine but are not sure how.  I love these students, too. A few will have arrived from a place that wasn’t pleasant at all. Their journey has left them tired and discouraged. They, too, would like to shine, but have forgotten how. I love them, as well. Then, there are always people who’ve arrived from an awful place. Their journey’s been so hard they’ve come to believe they can’t shine. I love these students most of all.

It’s my job to make everyone shine and I’ll do whatever’s necessary to make that happen. I don’t need to worry about those people who’ve arrived from pleasant places. It’s the ones who’ve come from awful places who are harder to love as they display the destructive strategies they’ve used to get this far. It is how they have survived and they do it perfectly. They are not failures.

My calling is to learn where they came come, what it is they are good at, and who they believe themselves to be. I may have to spend some time on my knees with them. I may even need to hang out with them in the smoking areas, squatting down beside them, but I will do it. I will get them to understand that they have arrived in a good place. I will pace them, build rapport with them, and as I get them to trust me enough, I will model new strategies for them — strategies they can use to replace the ones that are no longer necessary because they have arrived in a good place. None of this is easy, but it is the real work.

The student I love most right now is into dangerous sports, dresses in a style that says I’m scary, and works hard at being an unlovable outsider. Almost all of his teachers have written him off as someone with a bad attitude. They don’t care that he is one of the top BMX riders in Asia. I doubt they know how loyal he is to his crew or about his troubled relationship with his father. I know and I care.

It took a year to find that out, squatting down beside him until I could get him to stand up beside me.

Last semester he was told that because of his bad attitude he wouldn’t be able to join his classmates on a study abroad trip. His first reaction was to drop out of school. I was devastated, but I understood his reasons as he explained them to me. The other day I was so happy to see him on campus. He’s back and when I asked him why, he shrugged and said as he touched my shoulder, “I’ve got friends here. Anyway, how’s your heart? ” Better than ever, I told him.

In his essay Confessions of a Hopemonger, Herbert Kohl writes that “within everyone, no matter how damaged, hostile, or withdrawn, there is some unique constellation of abilities, sensitivities, and aspirations that can be discovered, uncovered, or rescued. The concept of failure has to be eliminated from the mind of the teacher”.  I believe this to be absolutely true.  At the end of the same essay, Kohl confesses: “I am a hopemonger, and I have also been accused of caring too much about students who other teachers have written off. “

I confess. I am a hopemonger, too. Are you?


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Chuck Sandy

Chuck is a teacher, teacher trainer, author & educational activist with 30 years of experience in the US, Japan and Brazil. His many publications include the Passages and Connect series from Cambridge University Press and the Active Skills For Communication series from Cengage Learning. He is a frequent presenter at conferences and workshops around the world. Chuck believes that positive change in education happens one student, one classroom, and one school at a time, and that it arises most readily out of dialogue and in collaboration with other educators. This is the reason he has built a Facebook group with over 9000 teachers from 24 countries that meet for ongoing educational discussions. It is also the reason he has worked to introduce Design For Change into Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, and Russia.

24 thoughts on “Working with difficult students – Chuck Sandy”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your inspiring story, which brought me in tears…
    It touched the softest part of my heart and those words will stay there as long as I communicate with others.

  2. This is a great piece Chuck. I love it.

    A few years ago at JICA, I had a student that everyone looked down on. He had rotten little teeth and spit when he talked. He was fat and stooped with thick rimmed glasses and skinny little arms. He was socially awkward and sometimes uncomfortable to be around. He was the classic example of the geek and spent all his time online. But he worked hard, he was focussed, he was trying. One day he overheard a couple of other people in the class saying something bad about him but it didn’t get him down.

    I wanted to check on him about that, to make sure he was ok. He looked at me and said, “Life’s not all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a hard place and it will knock you to your knees if you let it. But it doesn’t matter how hard you can hit. It matters how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.

    He was trying to quote Rocky VI. This geeky fat kid without an ounce of muscle on him had the heart of a lion, the heart of a warrior. Even though I had spent a lot of time worrying about him and keeping his hopes up, he turned it all around on me and fired my hopes!

    When I read your blog about your student who is a great BMX biker I thought of my student. There is so much more behind our student’s eyes and in their hearts than we can ever know, but finding out is so worth it.

    I’m glad to say it, I’m a hope monger too.

  3. This is really a very beautiful story. It inspires me to love the students who are hard to love and spend the time with all the students, without giving up on them. Not just empathy, but time is so important and time is just what teachers feel like we don’t have enough of. When students are the priority, teaching has meaning. Thank you for sharing this post.

  4. Thank you so much for your inspiring story.

    As for me I found it really hard not to look down to one of my students. He’s a computer programmer and lives with his parents though he’s over 30. He doesn’t keep up with fashion trends and looks like people 50 years ago. Th eworst thing about that guy in my opinion was that he had really bad pronunciation that was hardly understandable and it seemed as though he didn’t want to do anything with it. He used to ask me difficult questions and find the answers for them on the Net then he sent them to me.

    That was so silly of me not to like this person((( I didn’t want to come in class where he was.

    Now as i’ve found out some interesting facts about this guy, for example how deeply he loves English and how enthusiastic he is about it. He just wanted to help me to improve and I didn’t notice it.

    He still sends me e-mails from tme to time with the info he thinks I can be interested in.
    My reaction now is absolutely the opposite. I appreciate it really.

  5. Beautifully written as usual, Chuck. I can just imagine you squatting with pockets of students, just like a caring parent…
    I wish there more teachers like you.
    I hope the students know how lucky they are to have you as their teacher.
    I really feel sorry for those teachers who don’t try to get to know their students, but I feel EVEN sorrier for those who want but can’t…

  6. What can I say Chuck, we must all strive to emulate your attitude!
    I bless the fact that I have a co teacher for some of my hours. Some of the students I find most difficult to reach do better with her and vice a versa. I find it difficult to be “right” for everyone. We use each other’s tips for certain students and that really helps.
    May the candle of hope burn brightly!

  7. Thank you Chuck for the excellent comparison between students and the most memorable journey they start at an early age.I completely agree with you on the point that we should make the most of the opportunity of meeting them on one of the stops:)I meet my students at their teen age period and enjoy my time spent with them.I try to make them shine or lead them the right way to find the shine:) I really enjoy every minute of this wonderful journey with my students and I appreciate their effort and their contribution to my personal development.Thanks to this real work,it makes me feel proud whenever I read or hear about their success:)I’m looking forward to more learning and sharing with you all:)

  8. I have to admit I have a thing for “The underdog” as well, Chuck… I feel most times they’re truly just misunderstood. It’s just so much easier to label people and ignore those who don’t fit our criteria of who we find fit to be friends with, isn’t it?

    Do you think the way we were as students has any influence as how we perceive those students when we become teachers?

    Just thinking… 😉

    (Yes, I was a geeky kid as well… maybe not as badly ignored or mistreated by peers, but still… would that explain my behavior?)

  9. How very true!
    Happiness, growth & success can be, largely, within human control through Positive psychology in an encouraging, sincere & transparent environment. Apparently, ignorance or criticism bear no fruit as opposed to praise and stability which are essential daily necessities fostering improvement. This is so true in many folds of life!

    Thank you and keep posting!

  10. Hi Chuck,

    Yet another blog post full of love for your students. I absolutely love the word “hopemonger”!

    I truly hope I can see you teaching one day! What an experience that will be : )

    Thanks so much,

  11. Hello,

    It would be great for the teacher to be a hopemonger. However, as we try to be a good helper, the student needs to take up the responsibility to change. In fact, she/he should show the desire and will to reform herself/himself/. I, especially, like your description of so the called difficult students in the following way: “there are always people who’ve arrived from an awful place. Their journey’s been so hard they’ve come to believe they can’t shine”. And I would like to quote from the book “On being a Teacher : The Human Dimesion describing them as students carrying a pile of twigs on their backs awaiting to be crushed by adults with axes because they are believed to be the most notorious for troublemaking.

  12. Dear Chuck,
    Thank you for your moving description of the greatest aspect of our profession: the other human being. Being an English teacher it is our primary task to understand and help others. On the way we learn and learn and develop a deep respect towards others. This is called life-long learning.

  13. Hi, Chuck! This true story was so touching that it brought tears in my eyes!! You are a true educator for having such a perspective in your job. This is how all teachers should treat our students!! As being the one and only, the unique and significant!!

  14. This post just made my day! I love it. And I love the way it made me feel. The image of a student who’s squatting but then stands tall next to the teacher – beautiful, and so true. Before we can bring them where they are capable of being, we should go and meet them!

  15. Great piece, took me right back to my first school. It had a lot of angry boys alienated from the schooling system and abandoned by many teachers. The toughest of the lot was almost never in class, and if he was, he was confrontational and among other things, he was watching his father die a slow, horrible and painful death at home. Looking back, I wish I’d had the experience I have now to deal with him differently.

  16. It’s a very touching and inspiring post. I wish I could be hopemonger someday. I’m working on it now, though, to be always have positive thinking towards even really bad behavior students and hope that they can be better in the future.

  17. So beautifully said! That is the case indeed, in every school all around the world. We see students that are far from well behaved and often criticize their attitude, but we would understand them better if we knew more about their background. What I try to do is to find out what their talent is and boost their self confidence. I’m not often successful, but at least I give it a try..

  18. I enjoyed reading your blog. It is very inspiring and thought provoking. I am at a new school right now and one student immediately caught my attention in grade 3. She is very serious and refuses to talk, smile or participate in class. Later I discovered that she was in my after school class and I was surprised. I met her mom and realised that she was forcing her daughter to take the class. She is also in my club. I am trying everything I possibly can to get through to her if only she will let me in. Last week while one of the boys were reading to me, she started crying. I found out that one of the girls had said something mean to her. I asked the student to apologize and she said it was okay. Five minutes later, I saw her smiling and laughing for the first time and I was very surprised. Later when I spoke, I heard her repeating everything I say – she was making fun of me. I let it slide thankful for the change I noticed. At the end of the class when she left, she turned around and said “Goodbye, teacher.” with a smile. I agree, they are on a journey and it is our job to help them shine.

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