Recently I was reading a motivational book for budding small business owners. One of the ideas that really resonated within me was the claim that teachers often (unwittingly) take away a student’s ‘spirit’. It was suggested that teachers encourage students to deny their dreams in the face of a realist perspective that encourages them to focus on the task at hand (pay attention in class).
Of course as a teacher I pondered the reality of that statement. Does a teacher’s insistence that a class listens attentively to instructions and then practice the skills that have been demonstrated, constitute the destruction of hope and spirit? From where I stand (both at the front of the classroom and behind this keyboard) I think this is too simplistic an assertion. Certainly as I have mentioned in previous posts, I believe the role of a teacher is to inspire hope and encourage dreams. Teachers provide students with confidence so they can ‘ask’ the questions and then discover the answers. This confidence is essential both in terms of a student’s ability to learn and their self esteem. To be successful, a student must be willing to take risks and expose themselves to critical evaluation. They must be willing to experiment and value equally both praise and correction. Of course we all like praise, and correction can (especially if delivered negatively) cause anxiety and sadness. However if a student has a secure sense of who they are, they are more likely to understand that any correction, and indeed any praise, is for the action itself rather than the themselves. The challenge for teachers is to create an environment where students feel comfortable expressing themselves, while also appreciating the needs and perspectives of others. Put simply this means at times teachers need to insist students pay attention so that learning may take place for the whole group. Perhaps a story will illustrate this better.
Mary was a year 11 student who read feverously, eagerly immersing herself within the pages. She willingly participated in class discussions where she shared her ideas and commented on the relationship between themes and ‘real life’. Her comments reflected an in depth understanding of what she had read and an ability to critically evaluate a situation. However her writing lacked conviction. Ideas were presented in a random way with little thought to sentence structure or a cohesive argument. Mary relied on colloquial expression and often retreated behind ‘recounting the story’ rather than offering critically analysis. During lessons where Mary was required to write she chatted to her classmates, either dissecting last weekend’s activities, or planning the weekend ahead. When asked by her teacher, Mr Miln, to focus in her work, Mary became sullen and uncooperative.
Mr Miln was an experienced teacher who had encountered many students like Mary during his 15 years of teaching. He wanted to help Mary improve her writing skills so she could achieve the results she was capable of. Yet every time he modelled essay writing skills, Mary was more interested in her classmates or gazing out the window. So Mr Miln raised his concerns at a parent teacher evening. Mary angrily accused him of playing favourites in class and singling her out for undue criticism. Mary’s parents wanted to support their daughter, yet they were aware her examination results had always been low. Sitting across from two sets of anxious eyes and one set of furious ones, Mr Miln made a decision. He realised he was tired of rehashing the same conciliatory discussion year after year with students who felt threatened and parents who felt confused. This is the moment, he thought. This is the moment where I either I stop teaching or I start really teaching.
Smiling gently he leant toward across the table towards Mary and her parents. Speaking softly he asked Mary, “what are you afraid of?” Mary returned his earnest gaze with a look of incredulous indignation. How dare he accuse her of being scared! Again Mr Miln repeated his question. “Mary, what are you afraid of?” With a toss of her head Mary snapped, “Nothing”. Satisfied, Mr Miln leaned back in his chair and nodded. ‘I thought so.”
Mary’s eyes widened as Mr Miln went on to say, “Mary you have so much to offer. Your ideas are valuable and should be shared. But this fear of nothing, this belief that you have nothing valuable to offer is crippling you.”
“That’s not what I said” Mary replied angrily, “you are twisting my words”.
Again Mr Miln smiled gently, “Am I? You told us you were scared for nothing, and from what I see that is exactly what we need to explore” He continued on, “Mary, it seems to me that when you are faced with a blank sheet of paper you see an expanse of nothing and that is frightening.”
He checked to see he had her attention before continuing, “as you gaze at that blank page you are scared. You begin to think that the nothingness it reflects is a nothingness in you. So you search for ways to find connections and affirmations from the people sitting around you. Alternatively, you gaze out the window imagining all the things you would like to write about but don’t want to since putting them on paper means others will have tangible evidence of your thoughts.”
Mr Miln paused briefly before adding, “Mary, it seems to me that you fear your ideas are just more ‘nothing’ so you convince yourself it is better to write nothing than be accused of writing ideas that are worth nothing”
Mary squirmed uncomfortably in her seat but remained silent, so Mr Miln went on “Mary what would happen if you redirected those fears? What would happen if you believed in yourself and had confidence in your ideas – after all they are your ideas and all anyone else can do is say they do not share your opinions. And remember Mary, a difference of opinion is simply that, a different perspective”
Mary was leaning forward in her seat now, so Mr Miln offered a little more. “Mary I want your spirit to shine, I want to provide you with a collective, supportive environment where you may develop your skills within a safe ‘real’ environment; a place where your dreams can become tangible realities. But I need your help. I need you to make the conscious decision that you want to share your ideas through writing coherent sophisticated arguments that may be judged by others. Consider this Mary, judgement is to be embraced. It is through listening to others that we begin to appreciate the multiple perspectives that make up our world and it is by appreciating those multiple perspectives that we grow.”
Mary blinked a few times before offering a half smile. “Mr Miln” she said shyly “I do want to write better, but every time I try, I get back results saying I have not answered the question, or my language is too simple, or my sentences don’t make sense.”
Mr Miln nodded, “so… how do you feel when you hear those comments?” Mary replied, “I feel worthless and that all the effort was for nothing” Again Mr Miln nodded, “so what do you do with those feeling” Mary thought a moment “I shove them down here (she pointed to her stomach) and think I don’t care”. Mr Miln looked Mary in the eye and asked “why?”
Mary shook her head “because it hurts to care.”
Mr Miln looked back at Mary’s parents who had been listening earnestly to this exchange, before returning his attention to Mary. “Mary, this is what we need to address. I can show you how to write sentences that make sense, I can provide strategies for answering a question, I can teach you how to use sophisticated words. But you need to care. You need to care enough about yourself that you do not need outward reassurances of care”
Again he looked back at Mary’s parents “look I realise this is a lot to ask of a young lady who is still discovering who she is. I realise developing a sense of inner trust is a lifelong process, but the earlier we start, the more equipped we are to live prosperously in this world.”
Mary’s parents nodded. Mr Miln smiled, “so Mary what do you say… are you willing to care and have faith in yourself, remember I will be here to offer support.”
He stopped and thought for a moment, “Mary do you remember learning to ride a bike? You may have been anxious then, you may have fallen a few time and been frightened to get back on the bike”
Mary’s father chuckled and responded “That’s right Mary, remember you said you were never going to ride it again so I may as well sell it? Remember honey what I said to you? I said let’s give it another go. I will hold on to the back and run along next to you. Oh you were reluctant, but you were also determined. You wanted the freedom of riding a bike. So, you peddled and I held on running next to you. In no time at all you were riding off on your own” Mary looked to her father. “Yes Dad, I remember”
Three sets of expectant eyes now looked at Mr Miln, so he asked “Mary, what do you say, are you determined to have the freedom of expression that confident writing will give you?”
Mary nodded. Mr Miln continued “Ok, I will support you by giving you a framework upon which to write – no more ‘nothing’. And you will respond with definite purpose, willingness to practice and confidence in your ability to achieve” Mary’s half smile widened to a grin as she nodded, “Yes Mr Miln I will”