Help! My Student Looked Me in the Eye and Said, “We Aren’t Going to Behave”

Restorative Practices help.

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Dear WeAreTeachers:
I was left speechless and dumbstruck when one of my 7th grade students looked me in the eyes and said, “We aren’t going to behave, so you might as well get over it.” I was so shocked, I just kind of stood there frozen. In the moment, I didn’t say anything. Now this moment and a few others like it have me feeling useless and insecure. I’ve been teaching for four years, and lately, I feel like I’m moving backward. I’m not feeling effective, and I’ve run out of ideas. My co-workers don’t seem to be having the behavior issues I am.  Any suggestions?  —Rattled by Rudeness

Dear R.R.,

That sounds like a jarring experience! No matter how many years we teach, we are faced with situations that throw us for a loop. Pausing and reflecting on ways to move forward and learn from the situation is key. It’s understandable to feel a wide range of emotions right now. And all we can ever do is control our responses to any given situation. If you could do something differently, what would it be? What do you wish you had said?

My first piece of advice is to remember that student behavior has meaning. How well do you know this student? What is your relationship like? See what you can find out about the student who spewed out such rude and defiant comments. Is this type of disruptive behavior a pattern? Let your student know that, although you didn’t address what happened right away, you still want to talk. Communicate how you felt and what you need in order to have a classroom culture with mutual respect. This probably won’t be the only time you talk to this student about what respect looks and sounds like. Stick with it! It takes time to shape behavior and build awareness and self-efficacy with our students.

Let’s explore some questions from Restorative Practice. The idea is to shift from adversarial interactions to repairing harm and restoring relationships. Hopefully, these prompts will be helpful as you build perspective, compassion, and social and self-awareness in your classroom and school.


1. What happened?

2. What were you thinking at the time?

3. What have you been thinking since?

4. Who has been affected by what you have done? In what ways?

5. How can you make things right?

In addition to reflecting with the student one on one, connect with your colleagues, too. Shawn Achor is an author and professor who studies positive psychology. He writes about how the perception of the challenge is transformed by including others in your pursuit. Things can feel a lot harder on your own! You may THINK your co-workers aren’t having behavior issues. However, it’s likely they can relate big time to your feelings of frustration. Requesting help is not a weakness; it’s a strategic and proactive way to problem solve. Talking to colleagues you trust will quiet the intrusive thoughts of second-guessing yourself as a teacher. We ALL have challenges. So, reach out to another colleague and gain the support and insight you deserve.

It’s also helpful to talk to prior teachers who worked with the student. They may have strategies that were effective that you can apply and build on. The former teachers may be able to shed some light on the level of family support, too. You might even ask your principal to come and observe the student and dynamics in your classroom. Finally, some teachers would have called the student’s caregivers to inform them of the incident. When talking to parents, your mindful, responsive approach goes a long way. Show up to the caregiver interaction as calmly as you can. Before you describe what happened, try and start on a positive note.

No matter what you decide to do, notice and name the student’s positive behaviors, communicate any progress, and continue one-on-one check-ins to nurture your relationship and more respectful interactions for the good of your classroom and school.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I know this is going to be an unpopular opinion!  It really bothers me when teachers act rude while we are at staff meetings and professional development sessions. SO many teachers text, chat, and laugh with each other  while leadership is talking.  It feels hypocritical when those same teachers call that behavior out from their students. I’m so tired of teachers misbehaving during PD. How is this OK? —Over It

Dear O.I.,

There are so many areas of our lives when we notice a lack of alignment between what people say and do. You sound frustrated and disheartened with the ways some teachers are showing up. I know we can all agree that teaching is a VERY demanding and complex career. However, when teachers are talking, laughing, texting, and just distracted in general during meetings, it makes it hard to focus and feels rude. And these behaviors are also symptomatic of deeper issues, such as PD design and the need for meaningful connections between teachers.

So how do we navigate these frustrating contexts we live and work in? One simple yet profound approach is to focus on what’s in your control. This is so much easier said than done! It’s not easy to interrupt the negative thoughts that we ruminate on. Here are a few prompts to ask yourself that may help you feel more grounded and soften some of the anger that’s coming up.

  1. What is worrying me?

  2. What’s within my control?

  3. What matters most to me and what can I do about it?

In the spirit of focusing on what you CAN control, consider how YOU intentionally show up to staff meetings and professional learning sessions. Even though it will be challenging and we all have our good and bad days, maintain your open-mindedness, compassion, and accepting attitude. Your actions and words serve as inspiration to others! By doing this, you will also connect with other like-minded professionals that have similar values as you. These meaningful connections can promote motivation and understanding and bolster positive working conditions.

When staff meetings are well designed with high levels of engagement, purpose, and opportunities to process, teachers act in a more professional manner. When PDs are redundant, patronizing, and lack interaction, teachers can get grumpy and get off task just like our students. Many teachers feel like much information from staff meetings could be communicated via emails. There are key adult learner practices that are important to know about and apply when designing meetings. Adult learners care about the credibility of the facilitator. They want to know the purpose of the session and be able to contribute their experiences, as well as problem-solve pressing issues in collaboration with others.

Too many meetings at schools desperately need an overhaul to be worthwhile, responsive, and, dare I say, joyful and inspirational. Meanwhile, keep focusing on what’s in your control, living in alignment with your values, and being a positive, professional educator.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I’m having those weird dreams we all get before school starts. But honestly, it doesn’t just happen on the first day of school. I sometimes have recurring nightmares that I can’t find my students or I’m late and I have no plans.  My dreams are so vivid with my students lined up all by themselves, the only ones not picked up on the blacktop. Teachers laugh about these dreams, but I’m kind of freaked out. I’m a veteran teacher, and I guess I  thought the anxiety dreams would have lessened. Is this normal?  What can I do? — Wishing for Sweet Dreams

Dear W.F.S.D.,

Ask any teacher, and you are bound to find they also have work-related stress dreams like you. You definitely are not alone! It’s understandable to feel freaked out about dreams. As teachers, we manage many anxiety-inducing issues, such as feeling pressed for time, social-emotional challenges with students, concerns with academic achievement, planning and preparing lessons, assessing and adjusting instruction, interacting with our teams, problem-solving situations with families, social justice, equity disparities, and so much more.

Dreams reveal a lot about ourselves. Our dreams can represent our current state of mind, changes we are in the thick of, and uncertain futures. When we have particularly vivid dreams, it may be related to heightened stress in our lives, such as the beginning of the school year. Our bodies react to stress by flooding the brain with adrenaline and other neurotransmitters, which can create more vivid dreams. There is a difference between nightmares and stress dreams. Nightmares wake you up with a jolt of fear and possibly terror. Stress dreams wake you up as the stress builds in the dream.

So, yes, stress dreams are common, but what can we do? Here are a few things to try:

1. Wind down before you sleep. Put your work away out of sight. Limit technology and find things that relax you, such as reading, listening to music, and guided meditation.

2. Write down your worries. Journaling is a balm for stress and worry. Writing about your concerns helps you gain a broader and fresh perspective about your life. Expressive journaling is considered an effective way to detach and lean into healing.

3. When you wake up in the middle of the night, try not to watch the clock. Do some deep breathing and body scans. Ask yourself, “Is this dream real?”

If you are interested in exploring and interpreting your dreams, write down what you remember right when you get up. Include random thoughts and feelings. Even try giving your dream a title to help you remember and get to its essence. Hopefully, you feel a little less freaked out and maybe more curious about what you can learn about yourself through your dreams. Sweet dreams to you!

Dear WeAreTeachers:
You would have to live under a rock if you didn’t notice what’s going on with gender identity in our youth.  My goal is to create a welcoming and inclusive classroom culture for ALL of my middle school students. So I created a survey to get to know my students, and I included a question about what pronouns they use. My principal told me it’s not OK to ask my 7th graders about their pronoun preference. I know this is a form of discrimination. I’m now famous in my rural town, and the parents are bringing this up at the next board meeting. On the bright side, there are parents  who also desire a safe and inclusive learning space. How do I address this and be the ally I want to be? —Justice for All

Dear J.F.A.,

Why do we become teachers? Often, the answer is related to our desire to make the world a better place for each and every human being. Because you deeply care about ALL of your students, you have summoned up the courage to stand up for human rights. You stand in solidarity with other educators who are intentionally creating inclusive and affirming school cultures where all of our students are celebrated for WHO THEY ARE. You must feel so grateful for the families that are outwardly supporting your efforts to welcome all learners.

Surveying your students to get to know them better in order to build trusting relationships is paramount to learning. Asking about pronouns is a question that will help you be responsive to your students’ lived experiences and needs. Pronouns are part of our daily lives and set a tone for respecting the way people identify. Gender is part of our identity and isn’t something you see with your eyes. Rather, gender is something revealed from one person to another. When you guess or assume pronoun preference, you run the risk of making someone feel marginalized.

Yes, this topic can bring out a wide range of feelings and responses, and that’s OK. Let’s dig a little deeper together and stay curious. It helps to start by sharing some common definitions.

Cisgender: a person whose gender identity and biological sex assigned at birth align.

Gender identity: the gender a person knows they are internally and how they label themselves; common identity labels include male, female, genderqueer, or non-binary.

Gender expression: the external display of one’s gender, through a combination of dress, demeanor, social behavior, and other factors, generally measured on scales of masculinity and femininity.

LGBTQIA+: an acronym that affirms many fluid identities on the spectrum of identities that are outside of heteronormativity. Stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual.

Transgender (trans): a term that covers a range of identities that diverge from socially-defined gender norms. Trans people identify and live as a gender other than that assigned at birth.

Sexual orientation: “There are three distinct components of sexual orientation,” said Ryan Watson, a professor of Human Development & Family Studies at the University of Connecticut. “It’s comprised of identity (I’m gay), behavior (I have sex with the same gender), and attraction (I’m sexually attracted to the same gender), and all three might not line up for all people.” 

The Social Justice Standards provide a framework for anti-bias education related to the domains of identity, diversity, justice, and action. Sometimes teachers shy away from talking about these concepts in the classroom. This framework enables teachers to develop the concepts and language in ways that are developmentally appropriate. The Social Justice Standards serve as a road map to help reduce prejudice and increase collective action. It’s worth your time to check these standards out! For example, when teaching about identity, you can use the following language with your learners: “I can feel good about my identity without making someone else feel bad about who they are.”

Accepting adults play an important role in the lives of our youth. The Trevor Project reminds us that “LGBTQ youth who report having at least one accepting adult were 40% less likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year.” Not only are you a lever for equity and justice, you may be saving someone’s life.

Do you have a burning question? Email us at

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I teach high school, and I have this one refugee student whose name is really hard to pronounce. I tried, but I really butchered it and ended up coming up with a nickname. One of my colleagues is giving me a hard time about it. She says I’m not creating a welcoming and respectful space. That feels harsh! I really care about my students, and I’m not a bad teacher. Truly, I don’t see what the big deal is since this  student says he’s fine with the nickname. What’s the problem?

Illustration: Jennifer Jamieson

Help! My Student Looked Me in the Eye and Said, "We Aren't Going to Behave"