This I Believe
In my years in the classroom, on both sides of the teacher’s desk, I have come to believe that we can only learn when we consent to learn. And we only consent to learn when we feel known and respected as individuals by our teachers.
Students coming off a long line of incompetent and business-like teachers file into the classroom in September, boiling with resentment, afraid to speak up or be noticed, or desperate for notice, ready to snap. It takes time to get to know them through the armor added to the various masks of adolescence; by the time they realize that they can trust, and consent to learn, precious time has been lost.
Studies show that the damage done by a bad teacher lingers for about two years . How can a teacher do so much harm? It’s simple. Teachers can choose to look at students as a necessary, but unpleasant, aspect of their jobs, believing that we teach Math or Physics or English; but we don’t. We teach human beings. A glance can convey disdain or disgust in an instant, or communicate confidence, affection and compassion. This is truly breathtaking and dangerous power: we can build up or tear down the fragile spirit of a young person.
When teachers fail to see the individual, and take an interest in him or her, they miss everything essential about teaching.
In reality, teachers truly are in loco parentis, but this responsibility goes beyond the merely legal. We, teachers, must see each pupil as a treasure of potential undiscovered, imperfect, but striving.
Students must feel safe emotionally; they must never be the targets of sarcasm, that withering dagger of weak teachers who divide and conquer, raising up one victim to sacrifice to the mockery of the class.
We must discipline with loving firmness, not with the authoritarian fist full of disciplinary paperwork. We know that managing the bubbling energy of youth is essential, but would we expect adult listeners to respond warmly to someone who shows indifference or malice? Adults know that success is the best revenge in these cases. But adolescents don’t. A thousand times a day, students say, “I’m not doing that for her!” Of course, their work benefits them; as educators, we must inspire young people and cultivate in them the intrinsic motivation to learn, for themselves. We can only inspire them when we know them and respect them.
If we fail, our students are ready to fall on their swords, just to prove that they can.
And they can.
It is our mission to show them that they can discard that sword; they can take charge of their lives and enjoy the power of their minds. In this beautiful and amazing world, they can join us as we journey through the marvels of it all.
If we know them, and if we are good company, one of the marvels is that they will love to learn and learn to love the journey. Only connect, advised E.M. Forster. The rest will follow.
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