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Let’s Talk About Bad Students

I began my first year of teaching filled with an intense optimism for my incoming students. The highlight of my year would be to meet and talk with each one, looking for their strengths and superpowers. That thought was quickly interrupted, unfortunately.

“Hey, you’re new here? Let me see your roster.” I heard this phrase from practically every teacher in my building. It was inevitably followed with, “watch out for this one!” or “this kid will make you want to hit up happy hour.” By the time my first class arrived, I had been warned profusely about the bad behaviors and attitudes of at least 15-20 students.

This would repeat year after year. It was so disappointing to start the year knowing some of my students’ names only because of the complaints, venting, and warnings that other teachers hurled at me. But that’s not what hurt the most.

I was absolutely dejected by the annual realization that the students I was warned about most, quickly became my favorite students.

How were they passing my class and failing others? Why were they constantly suspended, but incredibly helpful, kind, and compassionate in my class? I wasn’t some spectacular teacher and I certainly did not have magical classroom management tips up my sleeve.

The answer to those questions became my motivation for writing “The Perfect Ten: Ten Students, Ten Mindsets, One New Definition of Perfection.” It wasn’t that these students were bad. These young scholars were simply put on the wrong side of the perceptions that their teachers had of the ideal student.

To understand what makes a “bad student,” you first have to have the polar opposite, the “perfect student.” The bad student then, in a teacher’s mind, becomes the lack of the qualities that the perfect student possesses. It seems simple, but how often do educators have the time, space, and mental energy to really evaluate what they are looking for in a student, and more importantly, why?

I watched as every child who teachers warned me about amazed, surprised, and inspired me in the classroom. How could any educator with any sense call them a bad student? Little by little, those reasons came to light.

  • They didn’t adhere to the dress code

  • Sometimes they used slang, informal language, or profanity

  • Staying seated for 90 minute blocks were difficult

  • The communication style they used may be too loud, unprompted, or uninvited

  • Their work was unique and did not excel in standardized models.

  • The friend group they chose was often in trouble

  • They were going through a tragedy or difficult situation, which they couldn’t express or process in a calm or orderly fashion

On and on… Every year, these incredible students would be viewed from the microscopic lens of a teacher who had a much different idea of what students should look like, sound like, and act like. These perfect students would be labeled, disciplined, and pushed away because of the perception of their teacher.

Teaching is not an easy profession. Students come in presenting a variety of challenges for any educator to work within a classroom setting. Yet, I want you to consider this thought and take it to heart.

What if there are no bad students? What if we simply have a “bad perception?”

Author Info: Dr. Kevin Leichtman is the author of “The Perfect Ten: Ten Students, Ten Mindsets, One New Definition of Perfect.” He is also the co-founder of Connect with him on

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