He is failing two classes but stays up all night long to write short stories and comes to school overtired and irritable. He rolls his eyes at anything he deems as busy work, comes into class and intentionally sits with his back to me, and continues to chat with friends long after I have started the lesson. He barely completes most assignments, if at all, and I have to constantly nag him to focus and stop distracting other students.
He is, in short, a huge pain. But when his parent came in to have a conference with me last fall, I found myself looking a worried adult in the eye and telling him what I believe to be the truth: His son is going to be okay. In fact, I told him that his son will someday stand out from the others; he will find a career he loves because he is passionate, intense, brilliant, and fiercely independent. Even though this student is a pain to teach, he is someone I will likely respect when he matures into an adult.
Throughout my years as an educator, the colleagues I admire the most tend to fit the same description. My favorite colleagues ask tough questions of school leadership, are impatient with the status quo, and often intentionally break rules if it means a better education for the students in their classrooms. What tends to be expected of students in schools is the opposite of what many people admire in adults. And yet, students who raise their hands, sit quietly, do their work without question, and generally have figured out how to “do school” are the ones who tend to benefit most from the system and the ones who seem to have the strongest “work ethic” in the classroom. In a study of teacher expectations and perceptions on student behavior, most teachers noted that self-control and cooperation were the most important indicators of school success.
I can attest that students who are self-disciplined, quiet when asked to be quiet, and generally do what they are told in a cooperative manner tend to be easier to teach. Like many teachers, I have validated these behaviors through extrinsic rewards and praise. But I have also found that sometimes the students who are uncooperative, undisciplined, and even rude tend to be strong leaders. In fact, in a recent study, children who were found to be defiant rule-breakers tended to grow up to be academic over-achievers and high-earning adults. Other students seem to gravitate toward these types of students. This is why people often speak admirably of the “class clown”—there is something intriguing about a rebel, even if the rebel’s behavior is destructive.
I recently heard on the radio a state legislator speaking of the importance of developing “soft skills” for the workforce. He elaborated on the merits of understanding the importance of a firm handshake, showing up 10 minutes early, and being a “team player.” As I listened to him, I thought these were admirable traits—traits that my own father tried desperately to instill in me, which I generally ignored—but they were mostly values held by an older generation. And he isn’t incorrect; research shows that “conscientious” and “agreeable” people are often more successful in the workplace. But maybe the problem is with the various definitions of success, rather than with individuals who do not fit the profile of an agreeable worker. After dropping out of school, many would have believed Einstein to be unsuccessful, but I doubt many people would say that now.