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Speaker challenges traditional take on behavior problems

Times Observer photo by Brian Ferry Brian Mendler speaks with the Warren County School District teaching staff about motivating, engaging, managing hard to reach, uninterested and disruptive students.

There are teachers who challenge their students.

And, there are students who challenge their teachers.

At the end of the 2021-22 school year, teachers in the Warren County School District took a needs assessment.

One of the needs identified was strategies for working with unmotivated students, Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Eric Mineweaser said.

That made him think of Brian Mendler.

That’s not because Mendler was a student in Mineweaser’s class who was diagnosed with learning and behavior disorders, was labeled as “defiant, uncooperative, rude, mean, nasty,” was educated in a self-contained special education room for a year, and cheated his way out of special education.

No. Mendler was never Mineweaser’s student.

On Monday, Mendler, who went from a tough first seven years in school to become a special education teacher and professional development speaker, was the teacher and Warren County School District’s educators were the students during an in-service at Warren Area High School.

In almost a year in a self-contained special education room, Mendler benefited from having a small class size and teachers that understood him.

But, the labels that got him into that room were compounded by the labels affixed by his peers for being there. “That was the problem,” he said.

He was sent to that room not because he had difficulty reading, but because he challenged a teacher.

“A lot of the kids we’re talking about don’t have a place to unload,” he said with a picture of a house behind him. “The place where they should be allowed to unload is the place causing them the need for them to unload.”

He said teachers might try to see a student unloading on them as a good thing. “That kid right there feels so safe in my presence… he feels safe enough with me… to take it out on me,” he said. “Sometimes, when you work on the front lines, you get run over.”

He said he was often the first person some students had an opportunity to unload on “after not eating breakfast” or witnessing domestic violence in their homes.

Mendler said it is important that kids have someone that will listen to them “with no expectations.”

Listening to a student can help a teacher understand what that student is going through. In turn, that understanding can help the teacher know why a student unloads and how to help them.

He used the acronym HALTS to reflect some of the problems kids carry with them — hungry, angry, lonely, tired, scared. “I can’t fix angry, but I can usually help with hungry, lonely, tired, and scared,” he said.

Teachers must also be aware that the audience plays a role in every performance. Students do some things when their peers are present for show because they have to “spend all day” with them.

Sometimes, students say things in a disrespectful way — “this lesson sucks.”

“My favorite way to defuse a situation is to agree with them,” Mendler said. “What they are saying is frequently quite intelligent.”

When told his lesson was boring, he played along. “I hear you, and I’m not even saying you’re wrong,” he said. At six lessons a day and 180 school days a year, there are some 1,080 lessons in a year. “Some of them are going to stink,” he said.

He asked teachers to consider what they did wrong and what they could have done differently when they are filling out discipline referrals. If they can find something, making a change might help in the future.

“If I change me, I change everything around me,” he said.

Mendler spoke with the combined faculty Monday morning, elementary teachers just before lunch, and middle and secondary teachers in the afternoon. He will also be spending time with smaller groups of educators throughout the week.

He closed the large gathering with telling the teachers the one teacher’s words that changed his life after his mother pulled him out of the school that placed him in the self-contained classroom.

“I love having you in my class,” he said.

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