That trouble-making student? Ask why first

By Caitlin Kelly



If you’ve ever been a “trouble-making” student — or have tried to teach one — this recent op-ed might resonate:


The Department of Education estimates that 7 percent of the student population — nearly 3.5 million students in kindergarten through high school — was suspended at least once in the 2011-12 academic year, the last for which these data are available. Despite the Checkpoint Charlie climate in many urban high schools, where students are herded through metal detectors when they enter the building, suspensions are rarely prompted by violence. Ninety-five percent are for “willful defiance” or “disruption.”

African-American students are hit hardest. They are more than three times as likely than their white classmates to be suspended or expelled. As a result, as early as middle school, many black students have concluded that when it comes to discipline, the cards are stacked against them. They stop trusting their teachers, and their negative attitude becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They fall behind when they’re suspended, and many drop out or are pushed out…

In short, this kind of discipline is a lose-lose proposition. What’s to be done? Enter empathy.


This one hit me hard.

I’m white, female and grew up with privilege.

None of which exempted me from being in a lot of trouble, and eventually asked to leave the private all-girl school I’d been attending since fourth grade, when I was eight, which was when I went into boarding.

I spent every summer at summer camp, all eight weeks, so my life between the ages of eight and 14 was largely spent, (except two years living with my mother at home), surrounded by strangers and subject to their rules.

At the end of Grade Nine, I was told I would not be welcome there again.

If you’ve ever been suspended, expelled or told to leave a school, you’ll also know the feelings of rage, shame, humiliation and possible loss I felt then.

I loved our uniform, (a Hunting Stewart kilt and tie), and the rambling Victorian buildings of campus, its ancient chestnut trees and long afternoons of playing sports in the sunshine.

I would lose contact with some close friends, girls whose names I remember clearly decades later.

I lost my place as someone whose intelligence, and writing, had been winning prizes, respect and recognition for years.

None of which, of course, was ever discussed.

My bad behavior never included drugs or alcohol or physical fights — it was all very WASP-y and Canadian.

Instead, I talked back to teachers.

My bed and dresser, (we were marked every morning on neatness on a sheet of paper at the entrance to our shared bedrooms), were always a mess.

I once thew an apple core across the room, aiming at a waste basket below — instead it hit ancient paper wallpaper, leaving a tell-tale stain. I was 13 at the time.

I was excoriated for my deliberate vandalism.

It was nuts.

I’ve since taught at four different colleges and have had a few tough students.

I’ve not had the challenge of fighting, shouting and blatant disrespect of me or other students — so I wouldn’t presume to say how to manage that.

But I will say this — if a child or young adult is behaving like a monster in class, they’re quite likely plagued by demons outside of it.

They might be being bullied.

They might have parents or siblings with substance abuse issues.

They might be being abused.

You can be sure they are deeply unhappy and may well have no one who cares enough to get past their rage and rebellion to find out why. I still wish someone had done that for me.

You will only know if you care enough to ask them, kindly.

In my case, it was parents who were rarely there, off traveling the world for work or pleasure, or just not particularly interested in knowing I was troubled, just as long as I kept winning academic prizes and keeping my grades high enough to get a bursary.

I was sick to death of being ignored.

Instead of empathy, I was shouted at by ancient, furious housemothers, increasingly disdained by fed-up teachers, shunned by scared fellow students, and moved from bedroom to bedroom to bedroom as punishment.

My worst punishment made me very happy — a room all to myself.

I was later bullied for three years in high school, and didn’t much enjoy my four years at a very large and deeply impersonal university.

As a result, I pretty much hate school.

Also not fond of (useless) authority figures, most of whom insist on obedience with no interest in empathy.

What a waste.


Have you been the bad boy or girl?

Have you taught one?

How did it turn out?

How has it affected you long term?


18 thoughts on “That trouble-making student? Ask why first

  1. Definitely understand what you say about getting a room to yourself. I’ve often been puzzled why solitary confinement is used a a punishment when it sounds great to me 🙂
    I hated my school life too, due to bullying. I’m 51 now but when I tried to write a blog post about it I got so upset I had to stop. 30+ years and it still gets to me.

  2. Oh God, I was nearly expelled in fourth grade for just defending myself against bullies! I wanted to play with the other kids, but a couple of nasty ones were being cruel to me. When I complained to a teacher, I was told I shouldn’t play with them, but that would’ve meant playing with nobody at all. So I went back, and it continued. And then I fought back. I told them that I was a tiger, and I was going to kill them, and then I tried to fulfill that promise. It apparently scared them half to death.
    Well, the school wanted to expel me, but when I told my mom the full story, she told the school, “So, you’re telling me that my son was bullied, the teacher proved useless, and when he defended himself, you want to punish him? If that’s the case, I’m pulling my kids out of school.”
    And when the story circulated around the parents, they threatened to pull their kids out as well. As it’s a private school that depends on tuition to stay alive, my school ended up changing it’s policy. The school ended up expelling one of the nasty kids who bullied me.
    Years later, as my teachers came to understand my autism and ADHD a bit more, they learned that teaching me how to cope with it, rather than punishment, was a better solution. Still, a few times I got in detention for misbehavior. But at least they were doing it out of a desire to help me, rather than thinking they were dealing with a bad egg.

    1. Wow. Thank God for your Mom!

      Schools are so often such brutal places, designed to hammer everyone into conformity and obedience.

      I absolutely loved my later design training at the New York School of Interior Design — in every way what education should be: personal, attentive, hands-on, demanding but not cruel. I didn’t even graduate or get a certificate there, but feel much deeper loyalty to them than to University of Toronto or my prep school — both of whom have hit me up for money repeatedly.

      1. Yeah, the education system needs to change in so many ways. If I ever have kids, I might just homeschool them. Thereare great programs for that these days, and they make for good alternatives to traditional schooling.

  3. Although I can’t relate personally to this, your story highlights how important it is to have empathy and compassion. I think the world needs more of that!

    I was brought up with an awareness that we shouldn’t judge others without trying to see from their perspective or understand what might be going on in their lives to trigger their behaviour/actions. I try and keep that in mind any time I find myself judging someone without knowing their story.

    I’m sorry you had such a traumatic experience of education.

  4. you are spot on with this post, caitlin. in all the years i’ve taught children, what you say always rings true – there is always a reason. if at all possible, i don’t give up until i understand the real reason for the behavior. i acted out a lot in high school and was on a permanent grounding regimen for all intents and purposes. i spent most of my time sneaking out from my grounding which only added to it in the long run. i lived an unhappy home life and think i was looking for an escape from it all –

    1. Thanks…I knew you could relate to this as a teacher, but didn’t know you could also relate to it as a student. 🙂 It was really lonely to always be in trouble.

      When I got to high school, my nickname was Ice Queen because I showed (apparently) so little emotion.

  5. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Thursday links | A Bit More Detail

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