Defusing Refusing: Reaching and Teaching Students Who Display Resistant, Defiant, and Confrontational Behavior (Part 3 of 3)

By Tom McIntyre, Ph.D., author of The Survival Guide for Kids with Behavior Challenges

Defusing Refusing: Reaching and Teaching Students Who Display Resistant, Defiant, and Confrontational Behavior (Part 3 of 3)Thank you for joining me for the third and final segment of our blog post series. In part one, I talked about developing a professional mindset that allows us to operate with a clear and focused mind when confronted with defiance. Part two was about the nature of defiance and the importance of positive student-teacher relationships. In part three, I’ll provide a number of interventions that increase our effectiveness with argumentative, passively oppositional, and outwardly defiant pupils.

When we deal with intervention-resistant students, there’s no magical incantation or disciplinary pixie dust. However, following is a selection of ideas that enhance the chances of cooperation and compliance from our young scholars. There are two types of strategies: those that prevent misbehavior and those that respond to it. In either case, our goal is to make it personally rewarding for our students to engage in appropriate actions.

Preventing Misbehavior

  • Stop your students outside the classroom door in order to prepare them for appropriate entry. Provide them with directions for proper ingress and procedures to follow upon reaching their desks. Ask frequently defiant students to repeat the directions to you as they pass by.
  • Get student leaders engaged in an activity first. Then their followers are more likely to join in. Have defiant students help you begin the lesson (for example, handing out materials, providing a rehearsed answer to an introductory question, and so on).
  • Set the stage for compliance by first giving a direction that the student will enjoy following, then give the direction that might not have been received well were it presented without a warmup.
  • Use good-natured humor to defuse tension. Both sides should find the joking humorous. Sarcasm is never appropriate. Our goal is to help the students see the ridiculous nature of the situation and show us a knowing smile or chuckle.
  • Project a professional demeanor.
  • Use verbal strategies that increase the chances of compliance and cooperation.
  • Offer effective (as opposed to ineffective or counterproductive) praise and utilize the strategies for positively recognizing praise-resistant kids.
  • Criticize inappropriate actions in ways that are constructive rather than destructive.
  • Determine the reasons for previous noncompliance in order to prevent future occurrences.
  • Assess and improve the student’s present stage of willingness to change his or her behavior for the better.

Responding to Misbehavior

  • The #1 rule when dealing with noncooperation is to exude outward calm. Doing so ensures that our professional heads remain on our shoulders. Despite being the recipient of voiced insults and oppositional body language, we avoid taking it personally. We recognize that we have become the unfortunate target of actions stemming from frustration, embarrassment, self-doubt, or other stressful emotions that overwhelm the student.
  • Refrain from arguing. An argument cannot ensue if one party refuses to join it. Great advice, but what do we do instead? How do we respond professionally and productively when kids refuse? One key strategy is to depersonalize the interaction. Instead of saying, “I told you to put your phone away,” say, “The school rule is to keep phones put away during class.” Check out this video for more suggestions.
  • Build self-management of behavior by implementing one of the differential reinforcement procedures, perhaps strengthened by engaging the student in self-monitoring.
  • Properly assess and address each of the reasons for misbehavior.
  • Offer acceptable (to you) choices. Choices allow students to feel that they have some input in the matter at hand. They have some power (power that is subtly directed by you). More about offering acceptable choices can be found here.
  • Recognize that knowing what to do and actually doing it are two different things. Ascertain whether the failure to follow a direction is a performance deficit or a skill deficit. If the preferred action is sometimes performed, the student most likely is able to perform it. If the action is never performed correctly, the nonperformance most likely is caused by a skill deficit. If the former is suspected, consider providing motivation, perhaps through the use of a contract. If the latter seems to be the case, teach the correct action via shaping and/or task analysis.
  • Teach social skills. Our defiant students haven’t yet learned—or haven’t become proficient in displaying—prosocial behaviors. If students aren’t showing these social skills, we must teach these skills to students. With or without a packaged curriculum, you can instruct students in more acceptable responses to recurring situations. You might even use The Survival Guide for Kids with Behavior Challenges and the 100 lesson plans that accompany it.
  • Avoid saying the word upset. (“You’re getting upset over nothing” or “Don’t get so upset.”) No one who is upset thinks they are in that state of mind. They’ll invariably reply with “I’m not upset!” In their minds, they are reacting appropriately given the circumstances of the situation.
  • Respond to refusals during your group instruction using this six-step procedure:
    1. “I understand.” (Or “I hear you” or “I see.”)
    2. “Let’s schedule an appointment to talk about it.”
    3. “However, right now you need to . . .” (Or “It is time for everyone to . . .” or “I need everyone to . . .”)
    4. “Thank you” if the student complies. Provide encouragement if compliance does not come quickly: “I know you can do it” or “I know you’ll make the right choice.”
    5. If complaints and/or refusals continue, state one of the following:
      1. “I must be fair to everyone in our class by keeping the lesson going.” (Or “I must teach right now. If you’d like to continue this conversation, I am available during . . .”) Suggest a time when the student would not want to meet with you (for example, lunch, recess, after school).
      2. “I need you to ____ so that you can ______.” (Identify a benefit to following your direction, such as keeping all of the points, enjoying all of recess, eating lunch with friends, being able to leave the classroom with the others rather than one minute later, and so on.)
    6. Administer a consequence if argumentative behavior continues while stating your belief that the student will follow the direction in order to keep his or her remaining privileges.
  • For students who tend to refuse directions, use one or more of the following approaches:
    • Avoid telling students what they should not be doing. Remove words like don’t, never, and not from your vocabulary when addressing misbehavior or giving directions. Tell students what to do.
    • Avoid saying if. It sounds like you are offering a choice. Replace it with the optimistic when. Instead of saying, “If you sit down and get to work, I can come over to assist you,” say, “When you sit down, I will come over to assist you.”
    • Keep moving as you give direction. Avoid hovering over the student.
    • Ask for permission to give some advice. (“Hmm, mind if I offer a tip for handling this?”) If permission is given, respectfully and supportively offer suggestions for better behavior.
    • Instead of giving a direction, ask, “What should you be doing right now?” If the student is uncertain, give him or her hints or point to the posted listing of rules and/or routines.
  • Implement other strategies from my website.

Teaching students with defiant and argumentative behavior patterns can be a frustrating or a rewarding experience, depending on how we view the situations in which we find ourselves. With a positive professional mindset and consistent implementation of effective strategies, we can enhance the chances of our students and us exiting the school with smiles on our faces.

Thomas McIntyre, Ph.D., is a professor of special education at Hunter College of the City University of New York. A popular workshop presenter and keynote speaker, he hosts the award-winning website

Survival Guide for Kids with Behavior ChallengesDr. Mac is the author of The Survival Guide for Kids with Behavior Challenges: How to Make Good Choices and Stay Out of Trouble.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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Addressing Microaggressions: Exploring Assumptions and Stereotypes

By Christa M. Tinari, coauthor of Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School

Addressing Microaggressions: Exploring Assumptions and StereotypesMicroaggression. It’s one of those terms that can draw a lot of ire. But is it really “a thing”? According to Dr. Derald Wing Sue, “Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group.”¹ Marginalized group refers to people (in our case, students) of various identities who are commonly targets of prejudice and injustice.

Because microaggressions are often unconscious and not intended to be hurtful to others, punitive measures are not necessarily the best response. Punishing or shaming students who use microaggressions is not likely to bring more awareness or understanding to the situation. An educational approach will yield better results.

Many common microaggressions are assumptions based on negative stereotypes. Consider the following examples:

  • “I’m surprised you’re so articulate,” said to an African-American student.
  • “Wow, your English is so good,” said to an Asian student.
  • “But you don’t seem Jewish,” said to a Jewish student.
  • “I’m glad you don’t flaunt your gayness,” said to a gay student.

A Compliment or a Slight?
The examples above may be intended as compliments by the speaker. However, a closer look reveals a hidden meaning. For example, “I’m surprised you’re so articulate” implies that most African-American students are not articulate; being well-spoken is an exception to the stereotype. Students receiving microaggressions hear this hidden meaning. The students in these scenarios are well aware of the underlying stereotypes about their identity groups. When students receive these kinds of “compliments” frequently, they report feeling unseen, devalued, or unwelcome among their peers.

Exploring Assumptions with Students
I frequently use a guessing game activity to engage students in exploring the assumptions they make about their peers.² I intentionally use the neutral word guess in the title of the activity, rather than the negatively charged word assumption. I don’t want students to engage in self-censorship; I want them to honestly explore their own thought processes around the assumptions they make.

I begin the discussion by using myself as the first example. I say, “Take a good look at me. Do you think I prefer dogs or cats?” I ask for a show of hands for the cat and dog guesses. Then I call on three or four students to explain why they made their guess. Responses typically vary:

  • “You showed me a picture of your dog, so I know you like dogs better.”
  • “You’re wearing glasses that have that funny shape like a cat lady.”
  • “You speak really calmly, and people who really like cats are calmer and shyer, like librarians.”

I then reveal my preference: I’m slightly more of a dog person. I really bonded with my special childhood calico cat named Kitty, but I currently have two pugs I adore.

We then take a closer look at the ways students made their guesses. We consider the relatively benign and nonthreatening cat/dog question first. Then I pair up students and ask them to consider other questions about each other, such as:

  • Is your partner an early riser or a late riser?
  • Is his or her bedroom messy or clean?
  • What is your partner’s favorite music?
  • Does your partner prefer movies or books?
  • What is his or her favorite school subject?
  • What is his or her ethnicity or race?

Afterward, we talk as a whole group about how the discussions went. During this conversation, students find that some of their guesses were based on stereotypes. I explain to students that making these guesses—also called assumptions—is a natural human tendency. Our brains prefer certainty over uncertainty. So when we have incomplete information—which applies to many social situations—we fill in the blanks. We often do this unconsciously, and we are particularly susceptible to using stereotypes during these times. I remind students that stereotypes are generalizations about people based on their identity group and are often negative. For example, “All girls are catty.” We can become less influenced by stereotypes when we:

A. become aware we are making assumptions about others, and
B. question those assumptions.

This guessing game activity invites students to explore both the assumptions they make and the stereotypes related to those assumptions. When microaggressions happen in the classroom, students can then use this same inquiry process to address them. After this exercise, students who are targets of microaggressions may feel more confident in raising their concerns. Offending students, who often do not intend harm, can take responsibility by questioning their assumptions and recognizing the unconscious stereotypes that influence their words and behaviors.

Becoming Aware of Our Own Assumptions
Here’s a simple exercise you can use to uncover your own unconscious assumptions. Call to mind a parent or student about whom you have made a negative judgment. For example, you might believe that “Mrs. Flores doesn’t value her child’s education.” However, has Mrs. Flores told you outright that she doesn’t value her child’s education? If not, consider that this judgment might be an assumption. What are the reasons you’ve made this assumption? Perhaps Mrs. Flores has not responded to your email about her child’s reading difficulties. She also did not attend any parent-teacher conferences.

Now consider that your assumption might be incorrect, and that the opposite may be true: “Mrs. Flores does value her child’s education.” Given this assumption, what other reasons could explain Mrs. Flores’s behavior? Perhaps she did not receive your email. Perhaps she did not realize you expected a response. Perhaps she works the night shift and is unavailable to attend evening school events.

How might questioning your assumptions change your attitude and your approach to Mrs. Flores and her child? Would you consider the possibility that your original assumption may have been influenced by an unconscious negative stereotype about Latinos? This powerful self-reflection exercise can bring new awareness to the unconscious stereotypes and assumptions that influence our daily actions with our students and their families. The more aware we become about our own assumptions, the better equipped we’ll be to recognize and address microaggressions among our students.

Fostering a Sense of Belonging
The purpose of identifying microaggressions based on assumptions is not to create a victim mentality. Instead, it’s intended to deepen our awareness of our unconscious bias and how that bias impacts our students. Dr. Sue points out that “Racial, gender, and sexual orientation microaggressions are active manifestations and/or a reflection of our worldviews of inclusion/exclusion, superiority/inferiority, normality/abnormality, and desirability/undesirability.” Practically, this means that microaggressions reinforce in-group and out-group cliques, putting marginalized students at a disadvantage and negatively impacting their sense of belonging.

The importance of a sense of belonging has been studied in risk and resiliency literature for many years. Studies have shown that a positive sense of belonging at school correlates with positive student outcomes, such as greater educational engagement and achievement and stronger self-esteem, and decreases in disciplinary referrals.³ Therefore, it is important for us to be aware of the ways our students feel validated or invalidated, affirmed or ignored. Microaggressions can chip away at our students’ sense of identity and belonging at school. This ultimately is harmful to our classroom cultures as well as to individual students. The good news is this: With intention and awareness, we can address microaggressions in a nonpunitive, educational way that helps us build a positive community that is welcoming to all.

Author Christa TinariChrista M. Tinari, M.A., is a bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, and school climate specialist. She speaks at educational conferences and provides training and consulting to schools across the country. Visit to learn more about her work.

Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle SchoolChrista is coauthor of Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School: 48 Character-Building Lessons to Foster Respect and Prevent Bullying.

1. From a presentation by Dr. Derald Wing Sue at the American Psychological Association’s Annual Convention, August 3, 2012.
2. This exercise is a modified version of an activity called “Checking It Out,” from Conflict Resolution in the High School: 36 Lessons by Carol Miller Lieber, with Linda Lantieri and Tom Roderick. Cambridge, MA: Educators for Social Responsibility, 1998.
3. “The Foundations of the Resiliency Framework,” by Bonnie Benard. Accessed January 16, 2017.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

Suggested Resources
The work of Dr. Derald Wing Sue has contributed a great deal to our understanding of microaggressions and the impact they have on students. His books on this subject include:
Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation
Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestations, Dynamics, and Impact

You can access the presentation Dr. Sue made on microaggressions at the 2012 American Psychological Association’s Annual Convention here.

This short video, “How Microaggressions Are Like Mosquito Bites,” explains how the frequency of microaggressions makes them a much bigger problem than they might initially seem. Recommended for older middle school and high school students.

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Special Ed Confidential: What Students Really Want Their Teachers to Know

By Wendy L. Moss, Ph.D., ABPP, FAASP, and Denise M. Campbell, M.S., SLP, SDA, coauthors of The Survival Guide for Kids in Special Education (And Their Parents)

Special Ed Confidential: What Students Really Want Their Teachers to KnowThere is no one description of children who have learning disabilities or learning challenges. They are as different as children who do not have these difficulties. However, over the years, many of these children have confided their thoughts about their academic struggles, and their dreams, wishes, and goals with us.

When students receive special education services, they often want their general education teachers to:

  1. “Remember that I belong in her class and not do something new when I’m not there or play a fun game that I’ll miss.”
  2. “Know that I’m trying hard but sometimes need some changes to my work so that I can show what I know.”
  3. “Talk with my resource room teacher so that they both give me work that I can do.”

Some of the most common wishes that students have, whether they are in elementary school or high school, are for their teachers and parents to remember that they have potential, that they have areas of strength, and that they are special in a positive way, not just in a way that requires assistance or remediation. Many of these students also want reminders, for when they forget, that they have options in their future to lead productive, independent lives.

Students typically appreciate when their general education and special education teachers work together to present lessons and create assignments that are tailored to their specific learning styles and needs. When learning disabled children are given an assignment or a test in a format in which they can highlight their strengths and show that they understand the lesson, they feel more capable and confident.

“I like it when my teacher gives me a word bank. I know the answers but can’t always remember the words.”

“I know my teachers have to help me learn to read and write. But when I was doing a social studies project, I was so happy when my teachers decided to let me do a video where some of my friends acted like historical figures and I narrated the whole thing. I learned a lot of information, and the best part was that I was able to show my teachers what I knew by doing an assignment like this!”

In general, students have had positive reactions when they are presented with modified assignments or tests that enable them to more fully share their knowledge. However, some students are self-conscious about tests or papers that look “different” from those of their friends and other classmates. In this case, students and teachers should have a private discussion about how best to handle this dilemma. Many students prefer to take a test that looks different in a different location. Some students just need quick, prepared comments to say if another student questions them about their modified work or test.

Overall, students have told us that they want teachers to:

  1. Remember and remind them that they have areas of ability.
  2. Give them work that they can understand and do.
  3. Avoid calling on them in class if it’s a topic that is hard for them. (They don’t want to be embarrassed.)
  4. Highlight their work when it is done well.
  5. Coordinate work and homework with the special education teacher.
  6. Avoid calling attention to the fact that they have to leave for resource room or other services.
  7. Offer them extra help and not only depend on the special education teacher to help students understand the material covered in class.

Children with special needs want to have the same academic experiences as all children. They want to learn, be able to understand lessons, and be able to show their knowledge in a way that is best for their learning profile. Children who feel cared about by all their teachers, who feel respected, and who know that teachers are aware of their strengths and challenges are better able to engage in the learning process. They’re more likely to feel confident that they can do the classwork or the modified work (when needed) in a way that can make them feel pride in their accomplishments.

Wendy L. Moss, Ph.D., ABPP, FAASP, is a clinical and school psychologist who has worked with children and adults in private practice, school, clinic, and hospital settings. She has written several books to support teachers and children including Children Don’t Come With an Instruction Manual: A Teacher’s Guide to Problems That Affect Learners and Being Me: A Kid’s Guide to Boosting Confidence and Self-Esteem. She is the coauthor of School Made Easier: A Kid’s Guide to Study Strategies and Anxiety-Busting Tools.

Denise M. Campbell, M.S., SLP, SDA, has enjoyed a dynamic career as a speech pathologist and later as a school district administrator. Over the years, she has conducted evaluations and provided instructional services to hundreds of children and developed positive relationships with families. She has worked with children affected by a myriad of disabilities. She is the proud parent of five wonderful children, and in her spare time she enjoys reading, cooking, and camping. She lives in the New York City area.

The Survival Guide for Kids in Special EducationWendy and Denise are coauthors of The Survival Guide for Kids in Special Education (And Their Parents): Understanding What Special Ed Is & How It Can Help You.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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Defusing Refusing: Reaching and Teaching Students Who Display Resistant, Defiant, and Confrontational Behavior (Part 2 of 3)

By Tom McIntyre, Ph.D., author of The Survival Guide for Kids with Behavior Challenges

Reaching and Teaching Students Who Display Resistant, Defiant, and Confrontational Behavior (Part 2 of 3)Part one of this post addressed the steps for developing a professional mindset. Achieving that mindset greatly increases the opportunities for success in working with students who display defiant behavior. In that post, I passed along one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received: “If you’re going to work well with persistently noncooperative kids, you have to find something to like in each and every one of them.”

Getting personal
In concert with that professional mindset is developing positive personal relationships with our students. Doing so is crucial to successfully working with students whose behavior is persistently argumentative and oppositional. Quite simply, “They gotta like the messenger if they’re gonna listen to the message.” It’s human nature to cooperate more and put forth one’s best effort for people we like, respect, and admire—those with whom we have rapport and feel affinity.

These emotional connections are much more meaningful and motivating than contingent consequences. Expect learners to test those interpersonal bonds in order to determine if you truly can be trusted as a mentor—someone who won’t give up on them. In order to pass this test, we must stay true to our professional mindset. While we may administer deserved consequences, we also must express our faith in students’ ability to make better behavior decisions in the future—and we must teach those better behaviors.

Putting the kibosh on conflict
Refusal of directions can inspire from us a cascade of reactive responses that exacerbate and escalate disagreement. Our authority is being publicly challenged and undermined. We don’t want to look weak in this situation, because if we lose the battle, we’ll face this student in future conflicts, other kids will test our authority, and we’ll find ourselves questioning our abilities at a very deep level. A common response is to immediately begin thinking of punishment. However . . .

Punishment is not an effective agent of change
With defiant learners, we cannot mandate compliance; we can only invite it. Punishment often fails to bring the results we seek. First of all, while it can sometimes work as a deterrent to misbehavior with students who typically comply, it builds resentment among those students. Second, it touches a match to the fuse of oppositional pupils. Third, it doesn’t teach which behavior should be displayed instead. Fourth, it destroys positive pupil-teacher bonds, creating a “me-versus-them” mentality. Finally, it ingrains a failure identity in students, increasing the likelihood of eliminating educational progress as an important part of one’s self-development.

In order to avoid (or escape) the conflict cycle, we must discard the retaliatory responses that bring forth prolonged power struggles. Remember: It takes two to tango tangle.

Skillfully handling a student-teacher conflict situation is a dual challenge: we must manage our own emotions while trying to calm those of the student. Conflict can be turned into a learning opportunity when we make the decision to avoid the fight rather than engage in “tit-for-tat” vengeful reactions.

If our reactions presently are confrontational, we can change our ways with practice and persistence. We can prove ourselves worthy of trust through repeated and consistent positive interactions.

Don’t create the behavior we complain about
When we bump shoulders with someone and they apologetically say, “Oops! Excuse me,” we respond by saying, “That’s all right. No problem.” However, if we bump shoulders and the other person says, “Hey, watch where you’re going, knucklehead,” we are likely to respond in a similarly rude manner or acquiesce and mentally fume as we walk away.

When someone greets us in a friendly and upbeat manner, we respond in kind. When someone is grumpy toward us, we tend to be cranky in return. This phenomenon tends to surface in the classroom when students respond either enthusiastically to our lessons and directions or contrarily resist engagement.

According to Nicholas Long, a senior statesman in the field of working with defiant and aggressive kids, “In a crisis, we begin to take on the same characteristics that we abhor in a child.” He explains the phenomenon, as it presents itself in school, in this video interview.

Essentially, when students and teachers see things differently, we too often accept the invitation to an escalating battle. Unless we recognize how a situation is mushrooming and keep a cool head, we can become embroiled in situations that break our fragile trust-bonds with kids.

When dealing with students who are likely to utter impolite refusals when under stress, it is important for us to avoid retaliation while working on remediation. It is essential to become proficient in using “verbal aikido,” a way of phrasing our utterances in an assertive but nonaggressive manner.

“Nothing works with that obstinate kid!”
If you’ve ever thought or voiced this point of view, the first step toward more effective management practices is to change that wording to “I haven’t yet found anything that works well with my student.” Now that we possess a professional mindset, we can implement intervention strategies that can change defiant behavior for the better. And we can do so in a consistently supportive manner.

Essentially, defiance can be reduced to this sequence of events:

  1. A person with authority presents a direction.
  2. An attentive student understands the direction.
  3. The student is capable of performing the action.
  4. The student fails to comply with the direction:
    • within a reasonable period of time (a function of individual teacher tolerance) or
    • to a reasonable standard (also a function of individual teacher tolerance)

We can implement strategies that improve each of the steps in the above sequence: giving directions, gaining student attention, addressing performance rather than skill deficits, and decreasing the latency between the direction and students’ compliance.

Whatever the reason for a defiant action, that action is best viewed as an error in responding to a situation rather than as being exhibited on purpose. Our goal, then, is to teach our students inner management of behavior and more adaptive, prosocial responses to stressful events, all while promoting and maintaining positive child-adult bonds.

In part three of this post, I’ll look at some ways in which we can arrive at this endpoint. I’ll examine specific strategies that promote cooperation and compliance in persistently oppositional children and teens.

Thomas McIntyre, Ph.D., is a professor of special education at Hunter College of the City University of New York. A popular workshop presenter and keynote speaker, he hosts the award-winning website

Survival Guide for Kids with Behavior ChallengesDr. Mac is the author of The Survival Guide for Kids with Behavior Challenges: How to Make Good Choices and Stay Out of Trouble.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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I First Felt Like an Educator When . . .

I First Felt Like an Educator When . . .When did you first feel like a “real” educator? Members of our Free Spirit Advisory Board open up about their experiences, and you might be surprised by some of their answers.

I was going to present a guidance lesson in a first-grade classroom. Prior to the lesson, I went to the classroom while the class was at lunch in order to get familiar with the VCR/DVD player. Everything worked perfectly! I had visuals prepared and was ready to go. Twenty minutes later, the class returned from lunch and greeted me warmly. I opened my lesson and was about to begin the video—only it failed to work! The classroom teacher wasn’t able to make it play either, and tech support was occupied in a different classroom. In the blink of an eye, I pulled out a picture book that supported our lesson objective to read aloud and continued without incident.

Improvising is something teachers do every day. Only many of us don’t know we’re doing it because we do it so smoothly.
—Meg, school social worker

Toward the end of my undergrad work, I told my professor that I wished I could be a professional learner. She told me that she had been the same way and that it was certainly possible: “We teach,” she said. As a school counselor, I get to learn something new every day by being open to the lessons of my teachers, administrators, and (most importantly) students. I must stay informed and updated on important events, engaging practices, and evolving needs. And if I ever doubt my profession or my place in the world, I only have to be reminded why I do it by witnessing a student’s personal or academic breakthrough. When students realize that they held the key the entire time and I only had to suggest to them that they held it, nothing is more affirming.
—Stephanie, school counselor

I felt like a “real” educator my very first day as a school counselor. I walked into my office area and saw two students crying. The girl was sixteen, the boy eighteen, and they had just found out that the girl was pregnant with his baby and that the baby had Down syndrome.
—Lisa, middle school counselor

I felt like a “real” educator after fifteen years of teaching in public schools. I noticed three main points at that time:

  1. Inexperienced teachers asked me for advice on lesson planning, classroom management, and school procedures.
  2. Colleagues began asking me what I thought about current trends in education and how we would be affected by them in the future.
  3. When talking to noneducators, I found that people were clueless about all the acronyms used in education, like SLO, IEP, PLC, IDEA, and so on.

—Gina, music teacher

When I was finishing up my internship year, I was asked to fill in for a school counselor who was going on maternity leave. My excitement began when the principal gave me a tour of the school and handed me the keys to the guidance office. I shadowed the school counselor for a week before she left and got to meet many of the students and teachers I would be working with. My first day on my own I felt like a “real” educator. I turned on the lights in the office, fired up the ancient desktop computer, and printed out the daily schedule. When I went to the various classrooms to pick up students for individual or group counseling, I was surprised that they treated me like a real teacher, calling me by my formal name and following my directions. Even though I was in my early twenties then and probably looked like any other adult to the students, I felt like I had grown into adulthood that day and felt a deep sense of responsibility for the children I would serve. I felt humbled by the blind confidence that the students bestowed upon me.
—Jenny, school psychologist/school counselor

The first time I felt like a “real” educator, I was about two years into my job with a GEAR UP program. A student asked me a question about college requirements, and I rattled off the answer like it was nothing. The student thanked me and went about her assignment while I stood in shock, thinking, “How did I know that?” It was the first time I didn’t have to search my brain for an answer. While being a real educator is all about knowing how to find answers, those moments where you already know the answer feel like great accomplishments.
—Sarah, middle school counselor

Immediately on the very first day of my initial teaching job, I felt like a “real” educator. My degrees were strictly in autism spectrum disorders and applied behavior analysis. All of my experience up until that point was in environments where there was a vast number of team members for each student. Then I was hired by a small school district with a limited number of educators. As I walked into the office, the secretaries pointed out my mailbox, which stated “Resource Room.” I questioned if I would share a mailbox with all of the other resource room teachers, assuming that I would be working on a team. Their response was, “Just you—you are the resource room,” which ended up being a huge position with almost twenty students. I swallowed my fear, smiled, and said, “Okay!” I was a teacher.
—Rebecca, MSED, BCBA

I felt like a “real” educator for the first time when I could see children achieving skills and helping others in our classroom achieve skills. There is no greater feeling than knowing you taught children that skill, and now they are helping others learn as well.
—Jeni, director of Kendal Early Learning Center

I first felt like a “real” educator when I received a letter from a student who was in prison. His letter detailed all that I had done for him as a teacher and mentor. He wanted me to know that if it were not for me, he never would have finished school. I had him in the eighth grade, and he graduated four years later. He stated that even though he was in prison, he was taking college classes, not GED classes like the other prisoners. After reading his letter, I realized that I’d done it: I’d gotten through to someone and made a difference.
—Brad, counselor

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Suggested Resources
Everything a New Elementary School Teacher REALLY Needs to Know (But Didn’t Learn in College)

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