What students tell us, even when they don’t…

What follows is based on a poster I once saw in a counselor’s office. It had pictures of kids and tried to sum up what they were all about based on the nonverbals. It has always stuck with me, even though I haven’t seen it for years. However, generalizing students is tricky business, and I offer this post with full disclosure: I understand the realities and circumstances in students’ lives are all relative and unique. What I wanted to share were some observations that might be lost on the beginning teacher, or even those who don’t spend much time thinking about these things.


What we see: black hair, fake (or real) tattoos, piercings, gauges, black clothes, aloof attitude.

What we should not assume: the student is unintelligent, unmotivated, or criminal

What we should look for: ways to allow the student to better express themselves. This student is almost always introverted and often creative. Many successful artists and musicians have adopted this look, to much success. They may well identify with this culture because of the laid-back, creative, and non-judgmental nature of it. Most grow out of it by finding art, or another highly creative field in which to express themselves.


What we see: Hair that covers the face, hoods over the face, etc.

What we should not assume: the student is antisocial or does not want to be social

What we should look for: ways to help this student get over shyness and social awkwardness. The hair is like a curtain to hide behind. These students are very often social butterflies who are too shy and nervous to make the first move. Our best babysitter ever was one of these students. She was a bit immature for her age, and coped with the feeling of other students being too grown up for her by hiding behind long hair and nondescript clothing. She matured and came out of her shell, once people realized she WANTED to talk to people.


What we see: The “gangsta” student.

What we should not assume: the student has any interest in actual gang, or even criminal life.

What we should look for: lack of adult role models. When kids are lacking adult role models, they turn to celebrities. The “gangsta” style may be an arbitrary reflection of hip-hop stars like lil Wayne or Eminem, and may not connect directly with criminality in any way. Get these students to discuss music, sports, and culture. they are often tough on the outside and squishy on the inside. Believe in them, and treat them better than they deserve. Put them in leadership positions, and dare them to disappoint you.


What we see: Revealing clothes, tanned faces, short skirts, too much makeup (probably girls, but never know)

What we should not assume: They are sexually promiscuous, looking to get pregnant, or future hookers/strippers

What we should look for: attention starvation and loneliness. These kids often find that their looks attract attention in ways that are far more dramatic than their actions. It is an unfortunate truth of our society, but sex sells. Students find as early as junior high that it sells well in school. These students use sexual allure to get the attention they crave. Teachers and other adults need to make a point to compliment these students on anything of substance, and NEVER on looks. We need to build the self ego, and downplay the physical ego. Some of these kids may be drawn into sexual activity by others who understand how desperate they are for attention, and these students may need far more positive social guidance than most.


What we see: The popular, cocksure jock

What we should not assume: they are happy and confident

What we should look for: signs of depression. The students whom we often think of as our strongest in terms of personality are often our most troubled. For some, it is lonely at the top. For others, the pressure of performing in sports (or any other activity) can be crushing.  Also look for overbearing parents. In my experience, many of these sad jocks are not the ones who are really interested in the glory. Some ONLY do the activity because a parent values it.


What we see: The disorganized mess. Missing homework, buttons, just about everything. May also have poor hygiene

What we should not assume: this kid just doesn’t care enough to get it together

What to look for: a complicated home life, or the actual inability to keep these things in check, or worse, both combined. I have a special place in my heart for this sort of student. They are just a mess, and they know it, and that is part of the problem. They know it, they know everyone else knows it, and they expect to be reminded of it. If there is a kid walking our halls that needs to be cut a break, it is this kid. Instead of hounding them for homework, invite them to come in and work on it. Offer solutions, not criticism. Believe me, they get plenty of that anyway. For some of these kids, it is a chaotic home life that keeps the school persona discombobulated. They often feel there is something horribly wrong with them because this behavior attracts so much scolding and guilt-tripage. No amount of negative consequences will ever help this kid, so try something else.


What we see: the “stoner”

What we should not assume: the student has no goals, self-respect, or ambition.

What we should look for: something they might be escaping from. Sure there are plenty of casual pot smokers in schools, but most of the chronics are escaping from something specific: shitty home life, friendship stress, and often, school anxiety. I notice a very strong connection between learning disabilities and heavy pot users. Many seem to be just escaping the constant anxiety of feeling stupid all the time. Sometimes a fair bargain can be struck: “Will, if you can come to class every day clear-headed and awake, I will help you get your homework done, or I might even excuse some of it for you.” Just don’t give up on them. Once they feel like you have given up on them, giving up on school is inevitable.  The intellectual stoner is something else entirely. They believe in the creative inspirations they get from weed, and will be the first ones to tell you about it. Don’t bite. They are trying to justify behavior they can’t believe isn’t more widely accepted.  Either way, a little trick I use: I seat these students front and center and make them do just about everything. Get the door, the phone, make copies, enter attendance, hand out papers, anything to keep them on their toes. If I don’t get them to do at least five tasks in an hour I feel like I am slacking.  They eventually figure out that those tasks are pretty difficult to do stoned or hungover. Of course, addiction counselors should be consulted whenever possible, but the reality is that the chronic stoners are generally not affected by aggressive anti-use counseling unless it also gets to the heart of what they are escaping from.


What we see: the star student

What we should not assume: they love school, and love learning

What we should look for: anxiety, OCD, and suicidal behaviors. In my experience, there have been very few 4.0 or high achieving students who have not had serious mental health problems. The high achiever should be on notice all the time. They may be chasing the expectations of parents, siblings, or peers, but by the time they get  well into high school, they are in a struggle with themselves. We all need to de-emphasize grades and emphasize learning. These kids can’t hear it enough: it’s not the score, it’s how much you learn. Once that sinks in, the student can make steps to reconcile their high expectations and the reality of the world, which is that people are often far less impressed with GPAs than we think. What is great for these students: formative assessments that show personal growth, not just scores.


The list should go on and on, but it’s a start. the real lesson here is that as educators we need to reevaluate the stereotypes we hold for students and dig a little deeper. One thing I have learned in the last 15 years working with teens is that very few kids are not wearing a mask of some sort. I hope we are all willing to take the time to see what is under them. It may change a life.






2 thoughts on “What students tell us, even when they don’t…

  1. Anthony – I generally find a lot to agree with in your posts and recommend you blog often – today’s post however will not make my recommend list. Your ‘What we should look for(s)” seem to rely heavily on stereotypes of student groups and paint very broad pictures of students based on look rather than substance.

    How about we just look at students as individuals?

    PS – still love your blog – keep up the good work.

  2. Well, that is essentially what I was trying to highlight. It is more about seeing certain signs than pigeon-holing students into strict stereotypes. Thanks for the feedback.

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