Archive for the ‘Teacher Myths’ Category

Teacher Myth #4

January 28, 2011

Teacher Myth: 4

Teachers should not become emotionally involved with their students


There is a prevailing philosophy in educational circles that teachers are best served by not involving themselves emotionally in the lives of their students.  According to this principle, a teacher must follow procedures without caught up in the difficulties and hardships of their students.

The rationale given for this is as follows:

  1. Teachers are not friends.  Any emotional connection between a teacher and student is unprofessional and breaks the much needed divide between the teacher and student;
  2. Teachers lose their ability to make objective decisions regarding their students when they are emotionally involved; and
  3. If teachers worried about every little thing that concerned their students they would be so overwhelmed and overburdened they would cease to have the energy to work effectively.

So strong are the proponents of this philosophy that some go as far as to say that teachers shouldn’t smile until Easter (Christmas in the US and Europe).  The logic being that is a teacher who smiles loses the authority required to teach effectively.

I personally despise this philosophy.  I find it to be negative, destructive and absolutely outrageous.  If I was forced to teach in such a manner, I would be handing my resignation in before you could say the words, “No smiling!”

When a teacher decides not to become emotionally available to their students, they automatically become emotionally distant.  They become cold, unapproachable, lose their empathy, and lose the respect they thought they could only achieve by acting this way.  Sure they may preside over a quiet and orderly class, but it ultimately would be doing their students more harm than good.

Teachers are the most crucial of role-models.  An integral part of a teacher’s job is to model healthy behaviours.  One of the most humane and important qualities a person can have is empathy.  Without empathy, a person finds it hard to relate and connect with others.  They can become insular, cold and selfish.  These are not the ideal characteristics of a teacher.

Yes, teachers are not friends, and they never should be.  But you don’t have to present yourself as a friend to connect, worry, defend or care about your students.  Sure teachers must be aware that they can’t interact with their students as they would with their friends, but it doesn’t mean that they can’t share a joke or feel bad for a student going through a tough time.

The notion that a teacher loses their objectivity just because they care about their students is utterly false.  Teachers can certainly can maintain objectivity whilst providing care and support for their students.

Whilst I have lost sleep on the account of students’ hardships, it did not overburden me one bit.  In actual fact, I would be far more overtaxed by forcing myself to keep an emotional distance.

This terrible philosophy cost me a number of times during my teaching rounds.  On one occasion it almost caused me to fail.  I had a University inspector sit in on one of my lessons.  Her job was to grade me on my performance.  If I received anything less than a 4 out of 7, I would not only have to repeat the rounds, I would probably have to repeat the entire year.  The lesson went very well.  I prepared my class beforehand for the likelihood that there would be a visitor inspecting me, just so they weren’t freaked out by having a strange adult sitting in the back of their classroom.

I was really happy with how the lesson transpired.  The kids were incredibly well behaved, seemed to enjoy the activity and produced very pleasing work.  After the session, the inspector let me know that she graded me a 4 out of 7.  She said that the class was too well behaved and that she had to mark me down accordingly.  I asked her how teaching a well behaved class could possibly earn me a deduction.  She said that the students were clearly behaving, not because I was a good teacher, but because they liked me and wanted me to succeed.  She said that it is not viable for a teacher to teach in such a friendly manner as opposed to a firm and authorative manner and maintain control of a class.

I absolutely detest this argument.  I had cold, emotionally distant teachers when I was at school, and there’s no chance I am going to become that sort of teacher.  My experience since that episode has shown me that I was right.  Whilst my students are not the best behaved students in the world, and I clearly don’t control a classroom nearly as well as some, my students are happy, respectful, engaged and a pleasure to teach.  They respect me not because I am overly firm, but because they don’t want to disappoint me.  They know I care about them and in turn they want to please me and make me proud of them

Students deserve a teacher who cares about them.  There are plenty of other career options for people who pride themselves on emotional distance such as parking inspectors and tax auditors.



Teacher Myth #3

January 21, 2011

Teacher Myth 3:

A critical aspect of a teacher’s job is teaching resilience to their students

Forgive me, because I seem to be alone on this one.  As much as colleagues and friends have tried to persuade me that I am barking up the wrong tree, I am still firmly of the opinion that teaching children resilience, whilst not without value, is extremely overrated.

The data shows conclusively that children are more resilient than adults in absorbing severe events. Educators are blind to this fact.  They keep on stacking the curriculum with resilience training, completely blind to the fact that most students could model resilience to their teachers more effectively that vice versa.

Let me illustrate how this is true.  When adults don’t like something about their lives they have the option to make radical change.  They can move overseas, cut off their parents, separate from their partner, quit their job and break off a friendship.  Kids can’t impose radical change, especially at school.  They are often stuck at school whether they like it or not, they don’t get a choice who they sit next to and who their teacher is.  When an adult is being bullied they can more often than not find a way to leave the situation.  When a student is being bullied in the playground, there is nowhere to hide.

I’ve been to a number of professional development sessions on bullying, where teachers are given strategies on how to curb bullying at school.  In every single session, the teachers have at some point hijacked the discussion in a bid to find strategies that would assist them with issues they are having due to bullying on the part of parents and students.  We expect that these same teachers, who are at a loss to deal with their own bullying, will be able to successfully fortify a student suffering from the same problem.

When you consider these factors, children do a pretty good job of maintaining their cool and carrying on.

The definition of resilience seems to contrast significantly with what the resilience programs seek to achieve.  Resilience is defined as “recovering readily from adversity.” A recovery involves being able to completely let go of hurt and disappointment and carry on unabated.  Resilience programs instead of aiming for a recovery, focus on changing the child’s response.  They encourage students to deal with problems with greater maturity and perspective and avoid turning it into a scene or prolonged incident.

What is wrong with that?

Absolutely nothing.  As I mentioned before, the program has value.  In fact the concept of resilience is set up to be a major win/win for both student and teacher. The student learns to calm their response and the teacher faces fewer incidents that require intervention.  Instead of making a big deal about a problematic event, the student learns to internalise the pain and carry on.

The problem with that, is that on the surface of things it seems like there is no problem to solve, when in reality the problem is very real and very present.  It is just hiding where the teacher can’t notice it.

When a child confronts a teacher and accuses a fellow student of calling her fat, the typical responses include reassuring the child that she isn’t, claiming that the child doesn’t really mean it, recommending that she play away from the perpetrator or confront the other child with a reprimand.  Only the last measure comes close to properly dealing with the problem.  The others are unworkable because they expect a child to be able to accept such a put down without being too badly hurt by it.

But that is virtually impossible.  Sure the child can internalise the pain, but it asking too much of any individual to completely recover from such a remark.  Human nature dictates that people have a longing to connect with others, be a part of groups and avoid confrontation.  That means that we care what people think and say.  So any comment like that hurts.

It hurts adults too.  When I was a student teacher I witnessed a teacher remark to another teacher who was wearing a new red outfit, that “red didn’t suit her.”  The teacher in red got full marks for resilience (ie. she didn’t make a scene), but the internal pain caused was very evident.

Whilst resilience is important, instead of dealing with the problem it often disguises it.  It tries to fortify the student by helping them absorb the pain.  This pain often lingers and surfaces at another time.  Reading about child suicide, there have been plenty of resilient kids who were able to absorb shocking bouts of bullying for staggering periods of time, before it just became too much.

I wrote a post a few days ago which contained the following quote from Parenting Victoria’s Elaine Crowle:

“The best way to prevent bullying is for parents and schools to work together to build resilience within your child.”

No Elaine.  The best way to tackle bullying is to confront, punish, educate and reform the bully. Whilst resilience has its place, it is human nature to be effected and deeply hurt by bullying no matter how good the resilience training is.  The best way to deal with bullying is to make sure it stops immediately, before the damage is even more severe.

In summary, resilience training has its place.  There are very emotionally fragile students who require strategies to toughen up a bit.  There is no doubt about it.  But the side-effect of resilience is worth noting.  It often leads to burying the problem beneath the surface where it can do untold damage.  Teachers need to be aware that just as insulting comments and bullying behaviour hurt them and are not easy to recover from, their students exposed to the same types of behaviours are bound to struggle too.

Resilience should never be the centrepiece for an anti bullying program.  The only way to effectively curb bullying is to deal with the bully.

Teacher Myth #2

January 14, 2011

Teacher Myth 2:

Teachers have the right to keep parents at a distance.  Since the parents aren’t experts, it’s best they leave it up to professionals.

Teachers, over the course of their careers, will frequently confront angry and difficult parents.  It comes with the territory.  Then there are those parents that are overly anxious and extremely insecure (the ones that provide you with a 100 page dossier on their child before taking them on an overnight camp).  As much as it is tempting to want to shut the door on some parents in particular, and demand that they stay out of the affairs of the classroom, this is not wise.

Teachers have the responsibility to work with all types of parents and to ensure that the parents are well-informed and updated.

Think of it this way.  You have a person who invested most of his savings in shares through a stockbroker.  The person is nervous, and worried that perhaps one day his shares will crash drastically, causing him to lose his nest egg.  So he calls his stockbroker regularly, seeking updates, assurances and reassurances, sometimes more than once weekly.  The stockbroker isn’t a fan of the constant phone calls but sees this as part of his job.  After all, his client is making a big investment.

Now compare that to a parent.  They have entrusted to the teacher the greatest investment any person can make – their own flesh and blood.  Of course, being bugged and badgered by a parent is not much fun, but it is part of the job.  It makes any financial investment drift into irrelevance.

I am certainly not advocating hostile or abusive parents and I believe there are times when teachers must assert themselves against disrespectful and insensitive parents.  But teachers must also be mindful of the rights of parents.  After all, the data is pretty clear – the experiences a child has at school are a great indicator of how they will grow up.  Negative experiences at school can offset all the good work parents do at home.  You can have a tremendously loving home, but if it isn’t complimented by a supportive and nurturing school, the child could grow up with self-esteem issues.

The following are some methods I incorporate in my own teaching to keep parents informed:

1.  I write a newsletter every week which is low on gloss and high on content.  I write about what we covered in class in Maths and English and some of the activities that proved particularly popular or useful.

2.  Together with my newsletter (which I print in hard copy to ensure that the parents read it) I attach a personal student report for each child.  The mini-report features different boxes to either tick or cross off depending on whether or not the child has performed in that area.  The indicators include: behaviour, respecting others, homework, understanding concepts etc.  As well as that, it has room for a comment so I can elaborate and explain why I marked the child the way I did.

This mini-report distributed with the newsletter every Friday allows me to deal with social disagreements, homework not handed in and behavioural issues straight away.  The students know it’s coming and the parents know that they wont have to hear about an incident months later.  My students get very disappointed when (and it happens very seldom) I don’t have the time to include the student report, because they know that their reports usually feature compliments and words of encouragement which they are very proud to share with their parents.

3.  I include parents over the course of the year in selected classroom activities so they feel part of the goings on in their child’s class.

Does this take a lot of my time?  It sure does.  But it’s worth it because the parents trust that I know what I’m doing and they are properly informed about the progress of their child and the skills and concepts being taught in class.  It works brilliantly at cubing the amount of complaints and enquiries I get.  By saturating (and perhaps even boring) parents with information, they stopped feeling the need to ask questions.  Because some teachers don’t disclose such information, it leaves it to the parents to guess.  Guesswork can often lead to negative conclusions.

Again, no teacher should tolerate abuse from parents.  However, teaching involves interaction with a diverse range of students and parents who have their own unique personalities and character traits.  And the key is to function in a way that’s going to benefit all stakeholders.

Teacher Myth #1

January 7, 2011

I’m excited to start a new series of posts on the theme of teacher myths.  Every week I will be examining a teacher myth.

Teacher Myth 1:

A Teacher’s Job is to Teach, Not to Concern Themselves With the Social Dynamics of the Classroom

I remember a student I encountered during my second round of placements as a student teacher.  The boy (I will refer to him by the name Max), was a teacher favourite.  He was well-mannered, courteous to others, bright, hard-working, loved learning and a very good listener.  Max had a glaring problem that didn’t seem to worry his teacher one bit.  As soon as the bell would ring for recess he would go out with the other kids, make a bee line straight for the line-up area, and sit himself down on the line waiting for the inside bell to ring.  And there he waited all by himself, desperate to do away with playtime and stick to what he was good at – working in the classroom.

The first time I noticed Max striking a lonely figure at the line, I did nothing about it.  What could I do?  I reflected on it that night and decided that if it happened again the following day I would try to help him in whatever way I could.  Sure enough the very next recess saw Max sitting at the head of the line-up area, waiting for the bell.  I approached him and sat next to him, saying nothing to him so as not to make him anxious.  I just sat there until he gave me eye contact.  Instead of advising him to go out and play with friends and reminding him about obvious details like the quality of the weather and the importance of exercise, I opened the conversation by enquiring about his interests, hobbies, what his parents did for a living etc.  After a few minutes we were engaged in a wonderful conversation.  So good was our chat, that Max’s classmates started to become curious and soon enough there was a group of students at the line-up area listening and contributing to my conversation with Max.  You could tell how surprised they were to find out how interesting this loner was and how different he was to their past perceptions of him.

Here is a kid who gets good grades, great reports and glowing feedback from his teachers based on his academic performance, yet needs as much help in school as the struggling student sitting next to him.

Good teachers know that if you limit your job to the dissemination of facts alone, you are letting down your students.

It’s very important to improve the academic skills and convey facts and concepts to the class, but in my view it is of equal importance to ensure that your students are well looked after, are managing socially and have a positive sense of self.  If school was just about academic achievement it would have to be viewed as in institution designed for many to fail.  There are students in every class who will not find learning maths, science etc. easy at all.  They are not natural academic.  This is more than alright, because with the right attitude and a patient teacher they can progress beyond their wildest dreams.  School is not just about academics, it’s about finding a place in a group, contributing for and co-operating with others.  So much of ones youth is spent at school.  If there isn’t a great deal of time put in to helping the children gain a sense of self and a place where they harness their diverse skills and qualities, then sadly it is a huge opportunity lost.

That’s why I am not surprised that anti-bullying programs have proved ineffective.  You cannot deal with the problem through a peripheral program, you have to make the self-esteem and quality of life of students paramount.  Equal to their academic performance.  After all, your students in time will probably forget about the important dates during the Civil War and will have long ago lost a knowledge of single-celled organisms and The Fibonacci Sequence.  What they will however take with them is memories of positive and negative interactions with teachers and students during their school years.  Unfortunately, for way too many, those interactions have been particularly negative and destructive.

The best teachers (for which I can only aspire to be one day), are not content with academic performance within the classroom.  They want much more from their students.  They want their students to have an appreciation for themselves and others.  They want them to develop a selflessness and to harness their ability to find compassion for others and make constructive life choices.  If my students don’t become lawyers or doctors (not that there is anything wrong with that), it won’t worry me one bit.  I just want my students to grow up to live happy and constructive lives, to look out for others and to carve out a legacy for themselves.

If you have a child who is floundering socially or is being harassed at school, it is more than appropriate, in fact it’s advisable that you alert the teacher.  And if that teacher shows a lack of interest in the matter, then he/she isn’t doing their job properly.

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