Do you understand your students well enough…yet?

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A few nights ago, I wrote the phrase,

“Stop taking it personally, your student does not hate you.”

They probably don’t even dislike you. It is much more likely the case that they just don’t know you well enough. They don’t understand you and you don’t understand them. . . yet.

Today, I listened to two podcasts that happened to touch on this topic – Jon Harper’s My Bad podcast episode, titled I Tried to Intimidate a Student: What Happened Next Surprised Me, and Mark Barnes’s Hack Learning episode titled How mantras reduce the stress of parentingHarper and his guest, principal Matthew Mayer, retold stories of trying to be tough on a kid, hoping that some movie-like magic of tough love would turn their life around.

Barnes interviewed Kimberley Moran, author of the upcoming book Hacking Parenthood: 10 mantras you can use daily to reduce the stress of parenting. Moran mentions that one key challenge in parenting, similar to the teaching day, is that we are constantly putting out small fires. This can keep us from seeing the whole picture, from being able to step back and understand the real problem.

The first mantra Moran shared in the podcast was, fittingly, seek to understand. It feels obvious, just like it feels obvious that Mayer shouldn’t have gone straight to tough love with a student for doing something wrong. But we’ve all been there. We’ve all made a decision to respond with anger rather than love (important note, these two are not mutually exclusive). There is a time when tough love is useful and needed, but the only way to know that is to understand the person you are working with.

2 questions to counter decision fatigue

It feels like, at times, we assume children should be great listeners, respectful speakers, always thoughtful, diligent workers, always kind, and never make mistakes. I think that teachers are often guilty of decision fatigue. When it feels like you’re putting fires out all day, you can take a student’s mistake personally, or hold it against them. Being honest with myself, I know that I’ve done this (hopefully not too often). We tell students all the time not to take things personally. We need to follow that advice. Stop taking it personally. That student is not out to get you.

Moran’s point reiterated two questions I’ve been considering lately.

What would happen if a teacher changed their perspective from something is wrong with that student to something might be wrong with my teaching? I’m not saying there is anything wrong with your teaching, but at least asking the question urges you to reflect on your work, and look for inconsistencies that might help that student and your whole class.

The second question you must ask when struggling with a student is, “Do I know this student well enough to judge their behavior?”

In my experience, I only know a student well enough to judge their behavior after I have developed such empathy for that child that it is difficult for me to be ‘angry’ with them. When I say ‘angry’, I mean that teaching moment in which you start to take a student’s bad behavior personally. When you get so frustrated that you chastise a student, maybe in front of others, without ever talking to them about what really happened. I’ve done it. We’ve all probably done it.

There are students who I argued with in the first months of school only to see them in a completely different light once we developed a stronger relationship – a relationship that allowed me to understand why they were late to school every day, or why they sat by themselves at lunch, or why they never cleaned out their backpack. (There are also students that I struggled to develop relationships with and struggled to respond to effectively.)

Have to vs Get to

Why would any kid walk into a classroom in September, meet you for the first time, and dislike you? They are not out to get you. They aren’t being difficult because they dislike you. Children are supposed to be difficult at times. They are supposed to be flawed. Love their flaws, embrace them. Those flaws are your challenge as much as the child’s.

Instead of thinking “I have to…” make this student change, be excited that “I get to…” help this student change. When you made the decision to be a teacher, isn’t that what you signed up for – the opportunity to help students overcome challenges. What could be more important as a teacher? Would you rather teach a student how to multiply, or how to make a friend? Would you rather teach a student how write in cursive or to become a passionate reader? Would you rather teach a student all of the states and capitals or how to turn their idea into a real life product?

There is plenty of time for the ‘real world’ skills that students will need as adults. I am guilty of thinking too long about the way to teach a specific math concept and less time on the ‘soft’ skills. ‘Soft skills’ like how to speak to someone in a conflict are easily pushed aside from the ‘real’ curriculum.

By failing to teach those skills or even mention them in a curriculum guide, however, we deem those skills less valuable than the many other skills we make time for in our schedule. Consider all of the things we make time for in our classrooms – multiplication, fractions, prepositional phrases, syllable patterns. That means we can also make time for other important skills: finding a passion and pursuing it, conflict resolution, developing empathy.

You put those two sets of skills side by side on a balance and I know which skills are more valuable to me.

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