Turning a Disruptive Student into an Ally

 As a young man I taught a class of twenty 16-and 17-year-old students. I thoroughly enjoyed the students and we got along great. They were lively and active and had a great sense of humor, making the class a lot of fun. However, one student by the name of Mark did not know when to be serious. The self-proclaimed “Steve Martin” of the group, he was always having fun and making jokes, sometimes to the disruption of the group. As a good-looking and popular kid, he got away with a lot.

One day I pulled Mark aside and the two of us took a walk down the hallway. I said to him, “Mark, like everyone, I enjoy your personality and humor. However, there are times when I feel it’s disruptive. It keeps me from teaching my lesson and your friends from learning, which is why we are here. Do you know what I mean?” Initially Mark defended himself and claimed I was unfair to single him out. I listened but also persisted in expressing my concern. He hemmed and hawed and told me that he didn’t mean anything by his jokes. It was just his way.

I told him I believed him and did not want to take that and other good traits from him—he was a natural leader and had a lot of influence on his friends and classmates. And then I challenged him, “You’re going to have to decide how to use your leadership. Will you use it to contribute to what’s happening and help people grow and become better? Or will you use it negatively, leading people to be less than they can be. That decision is yours and neither I nor anyone else, can make it for you. But I do want to ask, as long as you’re in my class, that you show respect to me and the others by being serious at the appropriate times and participating in our discussion. Are you willing to do that?”

I was quiet. Mark’s head was down for about 15 seconds and then he looked up and replied, “Yes, I can do that.” Mark acted appropriately after that incident. His behavior changed so that he was a positive influence on other class members and a pleasure to teach. Of course, the class members graduated from high school and went their separate ways. I did not hear again from Mark.

Then one evening, 20 years later, my wife attended a speech. The speaker sought her out afterwards and said, “Hi, my name is Mark so and so. He told her about our talk when he was a 17-year-old high school student. It caused him to consider his behavior and its consequences and he made a decision to change. He committed himself to being a positive influence on others and wanted her to go home and let me know that my confrontation had awakened him and made a difference.

I’ve still not met Mark as an adult, but the experience was another reminder to me of the difference we can make by confronting negative behavior, especially when done from an attitude of respect and goodwill.

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