We’ve all had the “unreachable” student who doesn’t seem quite “there,” mentally or physically. He sits in the back of the room, doesn’t respond to questions, doesn’t interact with the teacher or other students, often doesn’t turn in work, and leaves right after class without saying anything to anyone.
He avoids eye contact and speaks in a whisper, when he speaks at all. What is going on with this student? He may just be terminally shy, or there may be drug or alcohol abuse involved, or he may have a physical or mental health problem. Whatever its source, what are some ways to deal with the problem?
How to Get Through to Your “Unreachable” Students
Include the student.
As much as possible, persist in drawing the student into the class: call on her, try to get her to at least sit in on a group discussion, ask for her opinion. Treat the student as if she is “there,” in other words, even though her actions might say otherwise.
Talk to the student.
Make it nonconfrontational. Ask her about her life and interests. You might find a key interest –a shared interest in books, film, or cars, for example—that can help you relate to the student and share with her, throughout the term, even if the conversations seem one-sided. However, if the annoying teacher brings up a new film or movie enough times before or after class to Ms. Unreachable, she will eventually be forced to respond, especially if you bring in a book to lend her.
Find a buddy or a mentor.
Most students can by themselves develop relationships in class that in part keep them coming to class; the “unreachable” student may need some encouragement in this. With group or pair work, try to set this student up with the same person or people so that a relationship can form. Or speak to a student who seems tolerant and nonjudgmental and see if he will work with the student, serving as a mentor. One of the key elements to success in a class is developing relationships within that class, and this is true even for “unreachable” students who mostly seem as if they don’t want anything to do with the other students. It’s probably not the case, and the not caring or “loner” attitude is mostly a defense mechanism against the possibility of being hurt and also a cover for poor social skills and lack of ability to relate to others.
Talk to him again.
If your first attempt didn’t work, talk to the student a little more firmly. Ask what is going on, if he feels well, if he is having any problems. You might consider that if the student continues to act withdrawn and does not respond to any of your attempts to reach him, that there might be an underlying physical or psychological issue involved and try talking to him again—gently, very gently—about perhaps checking in at the student health center for evaluation. It’s a sensitive issue that teachers aren’t supposed to involve themselves in much, but you may be the student’s only available advocate. And if a student is showing some of the signs of chronic depression, someone needs to act.
Encourage journal writing.
Have the withdrawn student—or all of your students, so she won’t feel singled out—keep a journal to record responses to the class material. The student may then “open up” on paper in a way she wouldn’t have face-to –face, and you might find out some material that is useful in understanding the student—what is going on in her home life, for example, or a past or present learning or heath concern that might be at the root of the behavior.
Set up permanent or semi-permanent groups.
What many “unreachable” students—as well as students in general—long for is belonging. This is a broader human need, of course, and exactly what tends to get lost at large colleges or even high schools, where students rush from fifty-minute class to class, don’t get to know their classmates, and where the instructors might not even know students’ names. My fondest memories of class was where some community was formed. For example, a favorite graduate course was in educational law, not something that would ordinarily be a favorite topic, but the instructor set up the class so that it became a community, where we researched and presented court cases together and in the process learned about each other and knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses. This is a community, and it is precisely what many students, like “unreachable” students, need to draw them into campus life and away from the alienation they are obviously feeling.
Get out of the Classroom.
Many people feel “stifled” in the confines of a classroom, “unreachable” and less troubled students alike. So getting students away occasionally from an atmosphere of stale air, old books, and chalk dust can be beneficial, even if it’s for a walk across campus to the student union for a cup of coffee shared on the steps. Here students tend to drop their “class selves” and relax, engaging in more authentic interaction, such as laughing and joking, and that may be the case for the unreachable student as well. If this works, other such impromptu outings can be planned: e.g. “Take a walk around campus, note what you see, as many details as possible. Come back and write a paragraph about it.”
Only one or two cases a year, at the most, of “unreachable” students turn out to be anything more serious than an introverted student making a difficult transition to college, thankfully.
With a few steps such as including the student, getting to know her, setting up mentors, engaging in journal writing, and creating a community, the unreachable student can be reached and transformed into a well-adjusted college student.
What are some ways you deal with “unreachable” students”?