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From the Classroom: Toughest to Teach

By Brian Kelley

In preparation for a guest appearance in a Classroom Management course at Temple University, adjunct professor―and PAWLP co-director―Jolene Borgese asked her college students to email questions to me.

One question gnaws at me. For several days I have felt the need to write about it: Which students are toughest for you to teach? How do you address those students?

If I answered this question twenty years ago, I would have said the resistant students. My answer is different today. Yes, even after 20 years, I still find some students tough to teach. And I think I always will.

The toughest students for me are the students whom I do not know.

This one, my friends, is squarely on me. Not on the students. 

It makes me smile to admit it because I don’t think I was aware enough twenty years ago to realize I was struggling. I may have been sanitized, confused, and distracted by so much well-intentioned (but poor) advice: you aren’t their friend, you aren’t their friend, you aren’t their friend.

Well, what is the opposite of friend? If not their friend, what am I supposed to be?

I fell into the familiar role of judge which suits education so well. A judge is cold, distant, and disconnected. A judge is never a friend. A judge sits above the rest. A judge bangs a gavel, calls in a bailiff, throws people out of his space, and above all else, a judge passes cold judgement.

I was a judge for too long. I didn’t know I was supposed to be a mentor.

Screenshot 2015-11-07 at 2.28.42 PMDonald Graves, the mentor’s mentor, writes in A Sea of Faces about an act he tried to accomplish as soon as possible once a new school year began: write down as much as you can about every student. And repeat the act often throughout the year.

Graves writes, “After I have memorized the names in alphabetical order, I begin to stick some traits next to each name. I memorize the names from beginning to end, or I try to write them from memory. Of course, I first learn the bright and the tough students; they are memorable. It is the children who are less engaged that are difficult.”

This is incredibly difficult for me during the first few weeks of school. When I review how Graves had command of this activity I am astounded. Every few days his knowledge of his students grew by leaps and bounds. Initially, I considered myself incapable of doing what Graves did.

But I was mistaken.

It just takes time. I can do it. You can do it too. We get better at it with time–and commitment. Last year it took me more than half of the year to be able to write something unique about each of my students. This year I am already there―because I learned to listen better. Actually, I learned to talk less first.

Graves advises, “I try to place solid nouns opposite each name. William Carlos Williams writes, “No ideas but in things.”

[Note: pseudonyms are used here]

Brian Kelley PAWLP
This is a screenshot of my current Google Doc where I keep my notes. I know that Tessa is an intensely dedicated visual artist and that Steve is related to a man who I coached against. Kathy’s dog goes “insane” (her words”) when he hears a milk carton, and Jake’s grandparents mail him pictures of their slaughtered goat during Eid. When I asked him to tell me more about it, he said it is a symbol of cleansing away one’s sins. Maureen knows she is lucky to have a large and close family. Tony plays baseball and has a heart of gold and integrity to match it―he sent me an email apologizing for something he did not really need to apologize for. Cynthia never really considered herself a reader before this year―now she does.

None of this means I know these kids well yet, but it at least inches me closer to knowing them better. Remember, the most difficult student to teach is not about student behavior―he/she is the one whom we do not know.

Like most, I am actively engaged with my students. I make an effort to talk to the students in the hall, at the door, at lunch―in all of those spaces between the standards and the assessments. The difference now is that I also listen and read to remember―a huge change for me. Our students share so much about themselves every time they speak or write. I am now a very deliberate processor of that information because I have come to understand why it matters.

More goes into a being an effective mentor, of course, than knowing our students: modeling good reading and writing habits in the classroom, handling one’s responsibilities (a.k.a. being a reader and writer away from the classroom), regular reflection, talking with our students about the strategies they used in their writing and what strategies they might try next. Donald Graves writes that we should always try to walk away from a conference with a student knowing that they have an idea or plan about what to try next.

Being a mentor is a journey. I will never perfect it because there is always something new and always someone new. There are and will always be students who are the most difficult for me to teach because I do not know them―yet.


Brian Kelley profileBrian Kelley teachers 8th-grade creative writing at Charles F. Patton Middle School in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania; his podcast about families and heritage “I Remember” can be found on iTunes; you can connect with him on Twitter @_briank_ or on his blog:

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul #

    I absolutely agree! What are we if not friends? Enemies? I have heard this so often before I have even begun teaching that it is almost disheartening; as if getting to know the students intimately will somehow disadvantage us. “You’re not here to be their friend!” Well, what am I here for? The paycheck? Hell no. My colleagues? Maybe, but most likely not. The school? It’s nothing without the people within it.

    I signed up to become a professional educator BECAUSE of the students. I wanted to find little mini-me’s (which, in my belief, lies within everyone) and to teach them! Of course each are unique and offer their own experiences, but that is what makes it such a beautiful experience! I want to get to know my students in an intimate (albeit professional) way! How else will I “teach to the student” (as I have been so professional taught in college) if I don’t know who the heck the student is?!

    On my first day of teaching, which is fast approaching, I want to assign a large paper that just asks the students who they are. It’s easiest to write when I’m only talking about myself! When you first visit a doctor or physical therapist they ask you about your history, where you came from, what create who you were now. Why should teachers be the exception?


    December 11, 2015
  2. Amanda McDevitt #


    Thank you for this written reflection on a topic that needs to be talked about more.

    “Well, what is the opposite of friend? If not their friend, what am I supposed to be?”

    I giggled at this line– immediately thinking “enemy.”

    All joking aside, I, as a future educator, needed to read this article now more than ever. I often find myself wondering what kind of teacher I’ll be. What will the students think of me? How will they view me as a teacher? What will they say about me? Reading your article reminded me that it is so important to be a mentor. I, like you, will take notes on the topics that my students share. Thank you again, for reminding me to always consider my students’ interests and hobbies when getting to know them.


    Liked by 1 person

    December 2, 2015
  3. Jolene Borgese #

    Hi Brian
    I heard Don Graves discuss this process many years ago but it is still so important today. I remember it being October or November of the school year and the beige kids – the ones i didn’t know well- haunted me. How can I get to know them better? It bothered me that the kids who I knew were the easy ones- the ones who readily shared things about themselves. The beige kids made me work to get to know them. When I did I was always surprised and delighted!
    Thank you for speaking to my class at Temple – my students quote you all the time- KNOW your students- according to Mr. Kelly! You may not know them but they know a little something about you.
    Thank you
    Jolene Borgese


    November 30, 2015
  4. Brian,

    Thanks for your insight on this. As a senior at West Chester, I definitely feel that future teachers are drilled on the fact that students don’t need friends, they need mentors. Your post does a great job of balancing that personal line. It seems like common sense to just put effort into getting to know your students, but at the same time it contradicts behaviors we’re trained to adopt. To create a realm of possibilities for students (especially in such a subjective content area as creative writing) I’ll absolutely keep this in mind. I’ll try to be less judge, more mentor in the future.

    Thanks for the great read!


    November 22, 2015
  5. Mary #

    So fortunate to have this thoughtful, insightful educator teaching my CFPMS 8th grader this year! Mr. K’s re-kindled a love of reading in my son because he does not TELL my son what to read, he allows my son to CHOOSE what he wants to read. Such a difference between assigned reading and self-selected reading. Thank you.


    November 21, 2015
  6. This line stands out: “The toughest students for me are the students whom I do not know.”

    As well as this paragraph: “It just takes time. I can do it. You can do it too. We get better at it with time–and commitment. Last year it took me more than half of the year to be able to write something unique about each of my students. This year I am already there―because I learned to listen better. Actually, I learned to talk less first.”

    I hear you. When I was interviewing for my teaching position, I was asked, “What does classroom management mean to you?” I responded, “Relationships with students.” While I sometimes laugh at my (naive?) answer, it’s something that has always stuck with me. Thanks for this reminder – and for the encouragement and practical steps all of us can take to make our experiences with students more meaningful.


    November 18, 2015
  7. Brian,
    As Judy J. notes, your post serves as a great reminder for some; however, for many your thinking will inspire epiphanies – I know I had several–e.g., I’ve often heard myself say that very sentence “they don’t need friends” to my student teachers/aspiring teachers/undergrads about their current and future students. I never truly bothered to unpack what that means and how future teachers might hear and understand the sentence. Your judge analogy is so apropos as to where that thinking might lead. I need to be more mindful of how I share and talk about the importance of building relationships in the classroom and outside the classroom. You do a fabulous job of sharing philosophical underpinnings and practical ways to get to know students and build community. Thank you!


    November 18, 2015
  8. jmjd #

    Love this line: I make an effort to talk to the students in the hall, at the door, at lunch―in all of those spaces between the standards and the assessments.

    I have tried this before and found it very fruitful. Thanks for the reminder to do it again.


    November 18, 2015

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