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In Praise of Difficult Students

There are many ways a teacher can make his students’ lives difficult. An incompetent teacher can make their lives difficult by failing to teach his subject properly or failing to assess students in a lively, humane manner. A truly great teacher can also make students’ lives difficult, though. Fully formed students become like their teachers, which means great teachers are capable of giving greatness to their students, and yet greatness is only acquired through difficulty. If greatness were easy to come by, everyone would be great.

There are also many ways a student can make his teachers’ lives difficult. Disobedient students are hard to deal with, but so are students bound for greatness. The fact a student is “hard to deal with” proves very little in itself. A good teacher can distinguish between students who are disobedient and students who are difficult for other reasons.

The fact a certain teacher isn’t great does not mean his students can’t become great. Every student has many teachers, some of whom are far greater than others. A humble teacher with average talents should recognize that certain students make his life difficult not because they are rebellious, but because they are imitating other, greater teachers. An arrogant teacher cares about nothing more than making his own life easy and squashes students bound for greatness merely because they make his life difficult.

While it is longer and wordier, I prefer “students bound for greatness” to “great students,” because greatness refers to a life of deep productivity and wide-reaching consequence which no high school student can yet claim. It isn’t possible for every man achieve to greatness, but it is necessary that some men should, and it often happens that lives bound for greatness begin to reveal themselves at a relatively young age. When I speak of “greatness,” I am not only referring to the obvious, top-shelf greatness found in the likes of Winston Churchill or Amelia Earhart, but also to those who will sustain widespread recognition (for many years) for their talents, virtues, and accomplishments. Churchills and Earharts are uncommon enough that very few teachers will ever encounter one. On the other hand, senators, gold medalists, generals, bishops, artists, authors, inventors, discoverers, and medical pioneers come around far more often, and after twenty years in the classroom, most teachers have glimpsed a few students who went on to find greatness.

Just as small-minded administrators, parents, and students cannot distinguish between different kinds of difficult teachers, small-minded teachers lump every sort of difficult student into the same “bad” bunch. A disobedient student is a liar, a cheat, a scofflaw who disregards small rules, a queen bee enthralled by the shallowness of popular culture, a bully whose parents continually excuse sin with appeals to grace, stress, and extenuating circumstances. However, a difficult student bound for greatness might create the same number of headaches as a disobedient student, but wise teachers discern the path of greatness unfolding in the difficult student’s soul.

The difficult student may be assertive, opinionated, hard to please, and at fifteen or sixteen, all such qualities are a little obnoxious. Of course, a difficult student may be stonily silent, which also makes a teacher’s life difficult—even a good teacher. A difficult student may ask an absurd number of questions and undertake far too many projects outside of school, many of which cannot be finished or finished well. Difficult students want degrees of autonomy which good teachers and administrators continually shut down, which prompts difficult students to complain of being stifled. Difficult students speak to teachers as though they were equals and request favors of teachers one would normally only make of a friend. Difficult students are dismissive of fellow students who have no desire for greatness. They can be standoffish, dogmatic, overconfident, and confrontational.

A good teacher must distinguish between the intellectual and spiritual qualities in his students that need to be cut away from those qualities which merely need to be governed. Lying, cheating, and bullying have no place in a righteous soul. These qualities need to be purged, because they cannot be redeemed. On the other hand, overconfidence merely needs to be scaled back. Ambition needs to be appropriately matched to a man’s lot in life, his age, and his abilities. Dogmatism needs to be sweetened with diplomacy. Honest, courageous, brilliant men and women who speak the truth, no matter how unpopular it is, are absolutely necessary to the world—and yet such people often have to be endured when they are only fifteen or sixteen. The cost of having heroes in the world is not squashing the heroic impulse when it’s adolescent, unformed, and annoying.

I should add, though, that disciplining the heroic impulse is not the same thing as squashing it. By no means should students bound for greatness be allowed to do whatever they want. In fact, a student bound for greatness probably needs more discipline than others. When the heroic impulse is not strictly governed, it turns villainous. I’ll also add that one of the fastest and most reliable ways of determining a student is not bound for greatness is the presence of parents who absolutely insist otherwise. Overpraised children never gain the self-awareness or humility upon which real greatness is predicated.

While there is no way around the fact some men are greater than others, it’s also true that nearly everyone has some flash of greatness in their soul. Even the least competent steward gets one talent to leverage as best he can. In the end, my argument isn’t that some students need to be treated qualitatively differently than others, but that teachers ought always be on the lookout for greatness in their students, and not assume that great students will make their lives easier. It’s pleasant to assume that Churchill and Earhart were quiet, passive, and serene as teenagers, but it’s not very realistic.

1 thought on “In Praise of Difficult Students”

  1. What about students who are difficult to teach because they learn differently than the rest of the class, they process information in unique and abnormal ways compared to their peers or whose minds functions in not traditional fashion such that they require different guidance, effort or attention from the teacher to grasp, process and / or master the material?

    The difficulty in the post only seems to discuss difficultly that results from behavior and the need to train those students in virtue, but what about the students who are difficult because of the unique way they are made in the image of God.

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