• Aaron Daffern

Take CHARGE Day 18: Perceptions of misbehavior

Updated: Jan 31, 2020

Photo by Thomas Aeschleman on Unsplash

(To read Day 17, click here. To listen to this post as a podcast, click here.)

Take CHARGE of the Moment







Perception is reality.

This is something I learned long ago as an administrator. One of my least favorite jobs as a principal was to field calls and emails from parents. They would contact me because their child had a problem with their teacher. The teacher was mean, had said something rude, or was generally not a good fit for their child. They would contact me because, as the principal, they'd want me to do something about it.

I would talk to the teacher and, lo and behold, an alternate reality quickly presented itself. The teacher liked the student and thought she was one of the brightest in her class. The teacher couldn't think of any reason why the student would feel uncomfortable. Perhaps it was something the teacher said two days ago but everyone knew she was only joking. And on and on.

What I quickly came to accept is that, when dealing with human interactions, there is no one reality. Instead, everyone perceives events through their own filters that creates their reality for them. I might make an offhand comment that you believe is completely racist. That was not my intent at all but, if you become offended by my comment, I now have to deal with the fallout from your reality. That's simply how things work (in my reality, at least).

But why not take this truth and use it for our advantage when dealing with student misbehavior? If it is your perception of an experience that creates your feelings about it, not the event itself, why not change how you perceive it? We see the world not as it is, but through the lens of these judgments about what should be or what is desirable. This lens alters everything. Once we become aware of the lens we use, we can alter it or change it completely.

Good and bad behavior

One lens that teachers use a lot is the dichotomy of good and bad behavior. If we see behavior through the lens of good and bad, we create two categories of people and two value systems for their treatment. Students judged to be good deserve to be treated with respect, deserve to be part of the group, deserve to feel worthy, and are often seen as innocent victims of circumstances when they misbehave. They have good intentions, try their hardest, and are the kind of students we would want our own children to be friends with.

Students judged to be bad, however, deserve whatever it takes to put them in line. They should be excluded from the group for the benefit of the majority. Their bad behavior means they should feel unworthy and are seen as flawed when they misbehave. No matter how hard these students try, they always seem to have an ulterior motive. Even when they are behaving, we are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Bad kids only act good to lull us into complacency before striking again.

Most teachers don't start the year aiming to categorize their students as good or bad. It simply happens. To see how this lens dichotomy might be affecting you, imagine your most well-behaved student. You walk into the classroom during your conference period and the student is in the corner, unsupervised. When you walk in, this student stands up quickly and looks at you with a surprised and alarmed look. Your internal monologue at this point might be, "Hmmm. That's strange. I wonder what she's doing in here. Maybe she forget something in third period."

Now imagine the exact same scenario but with your worst behaved student. The one you pray is absent every morning, the one that curses you out in class and goes to see the assistant principal at least once a week. You walk into your room and see the student in the corner. I'm willing to bet that your internal monologue is a little bit different. "Aha! I've got you now. What were you doing, you little hooligan? You won't be able to wriggle your way out of this one!" That's the power of perception. Two students, identical scenarios, with interpretations that are completely different.

Safe and unsafe behavior