Tag Archives: empathy

Let’s hear it for the tiger mothers!

tiger-cub_1714112iIf you ask any young mother who is the most important child in the world to her, she will reply, “mine”. We would expect nothing different. This feeling doesn’t change when the child turns five and goes to school. Every loved and wanted child is the centre of his or her parent’s world. Pity the child who isn’t.

And so it seems odd when a teacher complains, “She thinks her child is the most important child in my classroom”.

Of course she does, and the sooner you acknowledge this, the sooner you will be able to set up a productive relationship between teacher and parent.

No parent sees a class full of children from the same point of view as the teacher. Good teachers strive to ensure that each child is treated as one among equals.

But no parents view their son or daughter as simply ‘one among equals’.

As a principal I have dealt with many an irate parent in my office. Sometimes their sense of outrage has seemed totally unreasonable from my viewpoint, where their child is simply ‘one among equals’. But it’s this sense of my child being the centre of the universe that leads parents to cry ‘unfair’ and demand to know, “what are you doing to punish the other kid?”

It’s easier to deal with the Tiger Mothers who look as if they might leap across your desk and tear your throat out at any minute, if we understand why they feel like that. They are protecting their young, the centre of their universe, the most precious thing in their lives, at a time when they feel their cub might be under threat.

Give me a Tiger Mother any day rather than the disinterested, unengaged parents who never walk through the school door or pick up the phone and dial the school’s number.

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Inspiration

I spent some time in an inspirational state primary school on the outskirts of Melbourne last Friday. It got me thinking about the inspirational moments in my own schooling and who the teachers were who inspired me … and why.

Grade 3 Mr Ross: I remember him writing us a letter from New Zealand where he was spending his holiday. When he came back to school he taught us a Maori song.

Grade 6 Mr Quinn: he was kind.

Year 7 Mr Ok***e: I spent a year with a caliper on one leg and he would ‘keep an eye on me’. I remember him letting me have his chair rather than sit on the floor during a whole school assembly and telling me I didn’t need to pick up papers during a litter drive.

Year 9 Mrs Burs***i: She taught us French, brought French cakes into school one day and lent me a paperback novel ‘Dickon Among the Indians’ because she thought I would enjoy it. She was also reputed to wander about her garden topless so there was a frisson of scandal about her.

Year 11 Mr Gr**t: because he was handsome and I was young and impressionable.

Year 12 Mr Ma****e: who would become so engrossed in his English literature class that he would mutter “Damn their eyes” when the bell rang mid conversation.

Year 12 Mrs Eng**h: She gave up her Saturday mornings to take me painting and came in an hour early one day a week to teach me. I was the only student in her year 12 Art class and she didn’t want to have me miss out on the opportunity to study Art.I have always felt I let her down because she said I was destined to become the first female director of the National Gallery.

Year 1 University: my English professor, a frail elderly man, entered the lecture theatre, stood behind the lectern and sang one of the Border ballads. It brought tears to my eyes because it was so moving.

What stands out in this recollection?

The teachers who inspired me did so because of their passion, their ability to extend my view of the world, but most of all because they connected with me as a person, they cared and they demonstrated their caring. That’s why I remember them. They knew me.

It’s a very long time since I was at school but some teachers have never deserted me, they continue to reside in a corner of my mind and form part of the network of experiences that have formed me and my view of what education should be about.

I keep hearing that relationships are at the heart of successful teaching.

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Distractions and Engagement

Everywhere I go now there are TV screens. In the doctor’s waiting room, at the car repairers, in restaurants, at airports. Everywhere. It’s as though we are being told that we don’t know how to amuse ourselves with our own thoughts or with a book.

I remember the great conversations we had as a family when our kids were small. We would go out to dinner every now and then and the new environment, the people around us, the occasion itself were spurs to some great discussions, lots of laughter and questions, questions, questions from the kids. They were curious and intrigued by everything. We relished the opportunities to interact with them and get them thinking about what they saw and heard.

I was in a restaurant last week and at the adjacent table was a family of five. The parents had their eyes pretty much glued to the TV screen on the wall in front of them, two of the kids were profoundly involved with their phones and the third just sat gazing into the middle distance. What else could he do? There was no one to talk to.

The disturbing thing was that my phone was sitting on the table on front of me, and it buzzed. My hand went almost instinctively to pick it up, to check out what piece of utter trivia or earth shattering importance was waiting for me. We were in the lull between having placed our order and receiving it. That space where you dip your bread in the olive oil and balsamic and try not to take too much edge off your appetite. It was the time when you check out the other diners, rearrange your napkin, ponder whether dessert is a likely option tonight. I knew if I picked up my phone, my companion would probably pick up his and there we would be, both tied by our eyeballs to our phones.  Conversation potential zilch!

When did we forget to talk to each other? When did the world around us decide that we could no longer be occupied with our own thoughts and the thoughts of others? Why are we allowing this to happen?

I think we are in real danger of forgetting how to engage – to engage with ourselves and with others. I fear that we are becoming immersed in a sea of distractions that tug us away from one another, and away from what goes on in our own heads. On our phones we flick from email, to twitter, to facebook, and back again. On our computers we hit link after link, scanning articles, leaving them half read and hardly considered as we move on to the next fascinating throw away tag line.

I think we need to learn a whole new set of manners about smart phone use in public. I also believe we need to teach our kids and ourselves to resist the temptation to flit about like intellectual butterflies from one distraction to another, from one hyperlink to the next. We need to teach our kids and ourselves how to engage.

It is possible to set an Ipad so that the opportunities for browsing are limited. With ‘Guided Access’ the teacher or parent can restrict usage to a single application and control which features are available. If your kids are using Ipads at home or at school for a specific purpose you can encourage them to stay on task, in focus and not be tempted to flutter off to the next pretty flower.

My son tells me of a great smartphone game when groups go out to dinner together. Everyone puts their phone in a pile in the center of the table, one on top of the other. The first person to pick up a phone should it ring or buzz has to buy a round of drinks.

Students easily become overloaded by the sheer volume of sources available to them when researching on the internet. Instead of allowing them to jump from source to source, teach them how to thoroughly investigate one or two. Show them how to determine the source of the information, encourage them to read to the end, ask them to compare and evaluate two sources on the same subject, for example www.crazydogtheoriesonhealth.com and www.mayoclinic.com or www.theearthreallyisflat.org and www.nationalgeographic.com.

Start a movement! The Bring Back Conversations Movement. Create a T shirt. Ask for a table where you can sit with your back to the TV in a restaurant. Design a bumper sticker. Start a conversation group.  Do whatever it takes to encourage people to communicate with clarity and precision and to listen with empathy and understanding.

In the book Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman I discovered that simply placing children in desegregated schools doesn’t appear to lead to greater racial interaction. Young children when dressed in either a red or a blue t-shirt at school will eventually choose their friends from those kids wearing the same color shirt. It seems to be that only when we talk about something can we begin to influence behavior. We need to talk to our kids about the need for conversation. We need to teach them how to participate. We should be encouraging them to explore the contents of their own mind and the minds of others and then to share their ideas.

It isn’t one thing or another. We should be teaching our kids how to be sociable users of social media. We should also be teaching them how to interact and communicate without always needing an electronic gadget as an intermediary.

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Don’t Forget the Kids

I am reading a great deal of commentary about the negative impacts of high stakes testing on teachers, on principals and on the education system in general. What I don’t read as much about is the effect on children.

When I was a school principal in the USA I worked very hard to develop a school environment that was welcoming, positive and made children feel safe. Many of the kids in this Title 1 School lived precarious lives outside the school building. I wanted school to be a place where they wanted to be.

This was testing week and we were about half way in. I had put in all the procedures my district required in order to maintain a common, secure standard of testing throughout all the schools. One group of fifth graders was in a portable classroom outside. During the Social Studies test a child needed to go to the bathroom. The assistant accompanied the child, and when they arrived back the child banged loudly on the locked classroom door, startling some of the children still working inside.

At the end of the test the teacher was required to complete an ‘exceptions’ report, indicating anything untoward that might have happened during the test. She mentioned this incident and reminded the children of the procedure should another child need to leave the room during testing. She then told the class (rather foolishly) that there was always a possibility they may have to repeat the test.

The Guidance Counselor and I were called urgently to the classroom a short time later. When I entered the room I was horrified by what I found. The teacher was seated on the floor physically restraining an hysterical child, another was repeatedly banging her head against the wall, a third was pulling hair from her head and many were crying . All this because they may have to take a test again.

The hidden levels of stress and fear that this testing regime had engendered in our children was made painfully obvious to me. I knew this had nothing to do with how my school was administering the tests. In comparison with other schools in the district we remained relatively relaxed about the testing period. I didn’t post monitors at desks in every hallway, I didn’t put signs outside the school asking motorists not to use their horns because “Testing is in progress”.

All educators understand that the entire enterprise is here for the benefit of our children. As we find ourselves caught up in these arguments about accountability and evaluation let us not neglect consideration of impacts this is having on them.

 

 

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The need was never greater

I am a regular user of social media. It helps me keep in touch with friends and family all over the world. I have even found people again with whom I had lost contact through the twists and turns of the decades. But I have decided to absent myself from the political discussions that I find there. I will watch but try hard not to participate. Why? Because they are so disheartening.

We choose our friends, and in doing so we insulate ourselves from the more extreme edges of society, the places that are anathema to our own values and views of the world. But online we find ourselves linked in to a much wider and more diverse network as we see the posts of our online friends being responded to by their friends and contacts. From time t to time I have joined in. But no more – if I can help it.

The abuse, intolerance and failure to exercise reasoned judgment that I have encountered online have dismayed me. Never have I been made more aware of the need to teach our students how to think, how to examine evidence, to take in data from all sources, to listen with empathy and understanding to the arguments of others and to express their own thoughtful opinions with clarity and precision.

Let us hope that educators will do a good enough job to ensure that the next generation of voters is more informed, more thoughtful, more analytical and more just. They say that we get the governments we deserve. Our children deserve the best. It is our responsibility to ensure that as they grow and learn they are equipped to choose the best.

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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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“How’s the boy?” “Oh, he’s dead.”

Let me tell you a story. It’s all about assumptions and communicating with clarity and precision. Maybe it has a little to do with listening with empathy too.

I had a friend.  She had a dog, and a small boy. She didn’t like the dog much. It had been left behind by a previous boyfriend, was bumptious and far too big for her small inner city home. Every day she took the dog for a walk in the park. Of course, her son came too. Anyone who has been a regular dog walker knows that relationships are built with the other pooch people in the park.

A couple of years after the dog’s death I was shopping with my friend when a shop assistant recognized her and exclaimed “Hello! So good to see you. How’s the boy?”

Remembering her from the park, my friend announced, “Oh, he’s dead.”

I watched the interaction unfold. The woman’s face fell and she stumbled over her words as she tried to express her sympathy for what seemed such a tragic event conveyed so bluntly. “That’s terrible” she said. “What happened?”

“It was some sort of leukemia, I think” replied my friend. “We were a bit upset at the time, but really, we decided it was probably all for the best in the end. The house just wasn’t big enough for us all and he was eating so much – a fortune to keep.”

The shop assistant was lost for words as my friend turned away with “Well, we must continue on. Things to be done” and swept off towards the china department.

As I followed, I explained that the woman had been asking about her son, not the dog. “Stupid woman”, said my friend, “Why didn’t she say so?”.

I have often wondered what that poor woman told her husband when she got home that night. I know I have dined out on the story for years. Amusing? Yes, but also sad because it demonstrates so clearly the misunderstandings that can occur when we fail to place ourselves in the other person’s shoes, when we blithely launch forth without attempting to examine our own or other people’s assumptions.

Our continued growth and learning as human beings depends on our ability to question assumptions, to listen with empathy and understanding and to communicate with clarity and precision. Failure to do so can create some amusing situations,

but it can also lead to unproductive and sometimes dangerous misunderstandings.

I would love to hear some of your examples, both amusing and serious, when the failure to exercise these Habits of Mind led to miscommunications and unexpected consequences.

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