The Secret to Leading Poorly Performing Students Well

If you’re like me, you’ve attended countless webinars on leading students during a pandemic. You’ve probably read so many articles on COVID-19 you feel like a cross between a therapist and a physician’s assistant. You’ve likely been on video calls so much your eyes are blurry and you’ve contracted Irritable Zoom Syndrome. (Just a little humor there.)

On top of that, you now have students learning remotely (at least part of the time) who aren’t doing as well as they’ve done in the classroom. Since you’re not with them, it’s harder to guide them, tougher to engage them, and challenging to teach them. Assignments are missing, participation is decreasing and grades are dropping. 

There is a secret, however, to reaching a healthy new destination in 2021.

What’s Your Motivation?

My son was an actor before he chose to enter the field of screenwriting. As an actor, the most important discovery he had to make was his character’s “motivation.” What’s behind the actions, thoughts, words, and emotions of the person he is playing?

So it is with us. We each have a motivation. 2020 has been a volatile, unpredictable, complex, and ambiguous year. It’s left us all uncertain about tomorrow. Children cannot find a leader who is sure about what’s coming next. But they CAN see our motivation.

  • They can spot it when we’re in survival mode.  
  • They observe nuances in our “auto-pilot” leadership.
  • They can read our sour attitudes and non-verbal communication. 
  • They can see when we’re anxious and nervous about the unknown future. 
  • They can perceive our frustration and disappointment over their poor performance.

Let me illustrate the secret of proper motivation toward failing young people.  

Winston Churchill modeled this as well as anyone I’ve known. Before he served as Britain’s Prime Minister he was Home Secretary, with responsibility for police, prisons, and prisoners. At the time, prisons were atrocious, rat-infested concrete buildings. The reason was, the public was focused on retribution for crimes. They wanted justice to be served. Criminals deserved nothing better than a dirty, cement room with four walls. While Winston Churchill also valued justice, he believed the British were capable of so much more than mere justice. “An eye for an eye,” he said, “only leaves the whole world blind.”

Justice doesn’t make us better. It simply makes us even.

Churchill focused on the future (the desired outcome) rather than the past (the punishment must fit the crime). Having been a prisoner himself in South Africa, he knew what resulted from incarceration. It was usually angry criminals who repeated their offense. He believed sentences should be redemptive not merely punitive. He said, “No lad between 16-21 ought to be sent to prison for mere punishment. Every sentence should be conceived with the object of pulling him together and bracing him for the world: it should be disciplinary and educative rather than penal.” Churchill remembered missing books while he was an inmate and a guide who could help him see a better tomorrow. That’s what he wanted for English prisoners. He was a pioneer of prison reform—installing libraries, classes, and skill training for inmates. When he began this initiative, there were 12,376 boys under 21 incarcerated; by 1919 the number had dropped to under 4,000. The recidivism rate had plummeted. He made prisons work by focusing on redemption instead of resentment of young offenders.

Students need this kind of leadership from us: Leaders who focus on a better future instead of our current realities. Leaders who anticipate discoveries, vaccines, inventions, and innovation to come from this challenging year. Leaders who can hardly wait for 2021.

And leaders who bring out the best in poorly performing students. 

How Do We Do This For Students?

Let me offer some simple action-steps for us today who are a few months away from ending a difficult year of protests, pandemics, polarization, politicians, and panic attacks. The year has been so filled with despair that the CDC announced in August that one in four young adults had contemplated suicide in the last month. Life is not supposed to be this way. 

1. When responding to misconduct, think DISCIPLINE not PUNISHMENT.

When we use the term, “punishment” we focus on the past. We give the guilty student what he deserves. If we’re going to equip someone to improve, we’ve got to think “discipline” and focus on the future. Look ahead and consider what you’d need if you were that student and offer that gift. I’m not saying there should be no consequence, but simply that our primary focus must be on where the interaction is going to take you. Churchill had young inmates studying and planning their future while in prison.

2. When managing a chaotic classroom, think CONNECT not CONTROL.

When students act out in class, teachers often attempt to seize control of the situation. Unfortunately, control is a myth. Managing a classroom is an art and I believe the best artists–the ones who create a masterpiece–are those who pursue a connection with their students at the heart level. Effective educators pursue a relationship with students that wins them over and earns the right to direct their actions and intentions. The more we must rely on our position to get things done, the less effective we’ll manage kids. Churchill challenged prison guards to form relationships with young offenders.

3. When addressing disappointment, offer feedback from BELIEF not RELIEF.

Every educator becomes disappointed with their students. What’s most important is what we do with that disappointment. Usually, we shift into reacting rather than responding to our students. We are frustrated and we begin venting. We feel the need to get this “off our chest” and relieve our anguish. Sadly, that often brings out the worst in students. Instead of relief, think belief. What if you responded with: “I believe you’re capable of more than this. I have high expectations of you and I believe you can reach them.” The entire point of installing libraries in prisons was the belief that a better life was waiting. 

4. When facing a setback, don’t think INTERRUPTION, think INTRODUCTION.

What if you began to see every interruption as a set up for a teachable moment? What if interruptions could be perceived as introductions to “just in time” learning, instead of “just in case” learning. I’ve seen teachers silence unruly students by leveraging what they just did to teach something important. Curveballs were hit out of the ballpark by a teacher who didn’t let the interruption distract them from their job. Churchill believed that life is a classroom and everyone is a teacher.

5. When planning students’ recovery, think OUTCOMES, not INPUTS.

When attempting to help students recover from poor behavior or performance on an assignment, you have more control over “inputs” (what you do) than “outcomes” (what results from it all). However, by focusing on the results you desire and inviting students into that shared goal, suddenly you’ll find alignment between you and them. The key is to begin with the end in mind and to work backward from there. The goal of prison for Churchill was a training ground to produce a better human being. Isn’t that the goal of our schools and homes as well?

Winston Churchill said, “You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.” This path works if we’ll stick to it. May I suggest you read and discuss Habitudes for Life-Giving Leaders? It’s full of principles to help you breathe life into students.

What I’ve outlined above is only possible if leaders raise their EQ. We must embrace social and emotional learning, and not just focus on our students getting it. I recommend you check out our Habitudes for Social and Emotional Learning HERE.

The Secret to Leading Poorly Performing Students Well