It’s Not The Kids’ Fault!

I had a conversation yesterday that disturbed me. “The problem with teaching is a lack of respect,” I was told. I assumed this person meant a lack of respect for the profession of teaching. But I was wrong. He was suggesting that the poor behavior of kids today was because the kids lack respect for their teachers. He described how, when he was a boy, students would stand up straight, next to their desks when the teacher entered the room, greet the teacher in unison and then wait until they were told to sit down. I remember that too – but not fondly. That wasn’t respect. It was obedience, often without thought and regardless of how the students felt about the teacher. An iron rule will achieve that kind of obedience for even a loathed teacher. It has little to do with respect.

Within the same school, with kids allocated basically at random to different teachers, I have seen some teachers able to have students eating out of their hands, while another has them cursing and throwing objects around the room. What’s the difference? The students are pretty much the same in both classrooms. The difference is the teacher. I recall walking into a grade three classroom where every child was head down, working quietly on some project or other. I looked for the teacher – she wasn’t there. Down the hallway I had had to put a teacher’s assistant in a classroom in order to help the classroom teacher maintain a semblance of order so the kids could learn.

I’m tired of hearing that the kids are the problem. We have always had difficult kids. In the past, order was maintained with the strap and with fear. Kids feared teachers, the principal, and their parents if word got home of misbehavior. Much of that fear has gone and some teachers struggle with finding something to replace it.

What is it that some teachers do in challenging classrooms filled with kids from difficult backgrounds? It really comes down to a small number of powerful, practical strategies. These teachers have clearly established routines. They are consistent and they do what they say will do. Their kids know explicitly what is expected of them and they know what success will look like. Above all this, these teachers know how to engage their kids in activities that grab their intellects, their senses and their emotions.

They also know that if they can effectively teach their students how to think skillfully, they will be able to approach everything that goes on in the classroom from an intelligent, thoughtful point of view. By teaching the behaviors that characterize thoughtful, successful people their students will know how to listen with empathy, to manage their impulsivity, to think and work interdependently.

Where do our teachers learn all this? In my experience teacher education programs today offer very little explicit teaching about the HOW of teaching. They focus on the WHAT. Some of our teachers, those who have completed the short course teacher preparation programs, have only demonstrated that they were good learners. They are then sent into schools where, with the support of teacher mentors, they are expected to learn all these things by watching them in action. That assumes two things – that they will see the best examples of how teaching can be done, and that the teacher mentors have the time to spend with them, to educate them in their profession. Those who complete longer professional preparation programs are still often short changed in the pedagogical education they need to be effective teachers with their first class.

How effective was your preparation to be a teacher? Did it teach you how to teach or were you expected to learn most of it ‘on the job’? How would you feel if your surgeon, your accountant or your motor mechanic learned the techniques of his trade ‘on the job’, just by watching someone else do it? Would you be happy to be one of his first patients or clients?

As we tinker away with curriculum and assessment and as we advocate for better facilities and more technology, let’s not forget that the greatest influence on student achievement is none of these.

The most important factor is the teacher. Improving teacher education may be a long term solution, but it’s the only one that will make a difference.

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8 Comments

Filed under Behavior management, Thinking

8 responses to “It’s Not The Kids’ Fault!

  1. Thank you for this excellent post. Reblogging it on NotesFromNina.

  2. Pingback: HOW instead of WHAT « NotesFromNina

  3. Wendy Sheridan-Smith

    Pat, I totally agree.
    My teacher training was so long ago I struggle to recall its impact – probably ok but I remember I learnt (and still do) a lot everyday.
    I think that the process by which teachers are chosen in this money driven economy has a cause and effect on everything. In my day we had to apply, be interviewed and if we were lucky we were accepted – going teaching was seen as a privilege and not something anyone could do.
    When I went two girls were turned down though their academic record (I am sorry to say) was better than mine but the university determined that their personalities were not suitable. It was an undisputed fact at my high school that they did not play well with others.
    When we are interviewing for staff I always ask why someone chose teaching or if teaching chose them. The answer determines more about their suitability than any other question we ask.
    Therefore I think the solution is two-fold: improve teacher training (we can always do better) plus make teaching a privilege and something to be aspired to for the best of each generation.
    Just a thought

    • Thanks for the comments Wendy. I worked in teacher education in Melbourne through the years when the training for primary teaching moved from a two year certificate to a three year diploma and then a 3 + 1 degree. It horrifies me to see these short course programs take root. In the USA the Teach for America program selects graduates who have demonstrated they are able to learn and pass tests effectively and then gives them a five week intensive course before putting them in disadvantaged schools to teach with the support of mentors. As if the mentors didn’t have enough to do already! Thank goodness the Teach for Australia program at University of Melbourne is a bit more rigorous than that.

      During my years at Melbourne Teachers College (under all its various names as we restructured) we interviewed every applicant, and similar to your experience, we looked well beyond academic results.Being a good learner does not equate to being a good teacher.

  4. Jan D. Phillips

    “Being a good learner does not equate to being a good teacher”. Pat, that said it all and perhaps, there is hope left for all of us.

  5. Bonnie Griffith

    I couldn’t agree more with Pat’s perspective. I have noticed that some teachers do not seem to even know the developmental characteristics of the age of the children they are teaching, and seem to have no real understanding of behavior management. I am not a fan of the short road to teaching.

  6. I have just read all of Pat’s discussions in one go! A great way to get a feel for where she is coming from and to be faced with challenges to one’s own thinking. Keep the articles coming, they are so worthwhile.

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