Hurting Children is Easy
Here is a thing that I have learned in my time as an administrator:
It’s much easier to damage your relationship with children than it is to build it.
I don’t mean that to come across like any great wisdom. All I’m saying here is that this is a thing that I really didn’t zero in on until I was out of the classroom and had the time and opportunity to listen to a large variety of teacher-student interactions. Quite a few of the teacher-student interactions that I am privy to (or at least that I notice) seem to me to be damaging to the relationship involved. Here are a few recent examples:
- The period bell rings and a student is running down the hallway to class. Two teachers loudly demand that he stop. They then make the student walk back to where they first saw him running, and walk back toward them. While the student does this, they sarcastically say things to him like “See? Was that so hard?”
- A student approaches her teacher on hall duty. In the conversation that ensues, the teacher expresses their belief that the student is not working to her full potential. As the conversation continues, the student indicates that she’d like to work with animals when she grows up. The teacher suggests being a dog trainer or a pet groomer. Another teacher nearby suggests the possibility of veterinary care. The first teacher dismisses that notion out of hand.
- Two students return to class from the library. The teacher asks them why they are back so early. The students indicate that they were sent back because the librarian thought they were talking too much, but that they were not. The teacher raises their voice and says something like “No. You were talking too much. The librarian does not make mistakes!” The teacher then leaves the class unattended and takes the two students back to the library, where they are made them to the librarian before the teacher leaves them there and returns to the class.
These are only the most recent incidents that have come to mind as I’m writing this. I could easily run off a handful more, and probably could list somewhere around 20 without really having to tax my memory banks. I think every one of them damages the teacher-student relationship.
An obvious question here is “why do teachers do this?”. My guess is that in most cases, the teacher isn’t aware that they are causing damage. I am sure that’s the case in the examples that I provided, knowing the people who were involved. This is what I mean when I say that it is much easier to damage relationships than it is to build them. You can do damage without even realizing it.
Teaching is difficult work. It’s really easy to take things personally, when they should be handled professionally. I think it happens to every teacher from time to time (it has certainly happened to me). And I think that it’s when you have confused the professional with the personal that you are most prone to doing something that damages your relationship with your students. Each of the incidents that I described above resulted from teachers being affronted by the student in some way. For a moment the “infraction” was not seen as being between the student and the teacher as an agent of the school as a system, it was viewed as being between the student and the teacher as a person. This is a dangerous conflation to make, but it’s one that teachers make all the time.
Another point that might be raised here is something like “Sure, these incidents might damage relationships in the short term, but in the long term the teachers are teaching students how to behave appropriately.” I doubt it. In my own experience, I haven’t found that damaging relationships to correct behaviors works. The boys in incidents one and three didn’t learn that they needed to walk to class, or be quiet in the library, at least not any more than they learned that some teachers are willing to humiliate them for “breaking the rules.” The girl in the second incident didn’t have a life-changing realization about her efforts in school, at least not any more than she learned that her teacher thinks that she is only capable of certain things. If the goal of some subset of teacher interactions is to correct behavior, then I’m personally interested in approaching that goal through the use of interactions that don’t simultaneously teach kids to think that the teachers in their lives are jerks.
Lest I be accused of ignoring my own glass house, let me be clear that I was not immune from these types of interactions in my own teaching practice. I have a reputation as a very good teacher, but thanks to the power of anonymous student surveys, I know that I could also be a jerk at times. For whatever reason, these incidents increased as I got older. Were it not for my willingness to regularly survey my students, I might not have noticed the increasing volume of that signal over the years, which would have left me unaware of this tendency. Fortunately, I had a feedback system that allowed me to see the trend-line and adjust.
Which is what pretty much any teacher (or at least any teacher worth thinking about) would do in a similar situation. No teacher wants to damage kids. Mostly, I have to think that this issue comes from the lack of systems that uncover student sentiment in many teacher’s practice. Putting those systems in place would go a long way toward helping teachers get a handle on those behaviors that they engage in that are damaging to their relationships with students. Of course, the willingness to implement such systems requires a degree of instructional courage that may or may not be present in each individual case.
One last note, here: This piece focuses on a negative dynamic that I have noticed over these past few years out of the classroom. But there are plenty of positive student-teacher interactions at work in schools, too. I could easily find many examples of these in the work of each teacher who was involved in my lead-off examples. I have no doubt at all that many of the interactions that are happening in any school are to the good. They just don’t happen to be the ones that I get to see a lot when I’m in a building. They are things happening in classrooms, and in the educational spaces where administrators visit, but never get to stay. They also tend to be quiet things; the type of things that teachers do as a matter of course, as a function of the work that they do. Because building relationships is generally not full of fast, dramatic, action. It’s harder than that, and more subtle. Which just means that it’s the work that’s worth doing.
What are your thoughts on teacher-student dynamics? How do you make yourself aware of the effects you are having on your students? Drop me a line or leave a comment below if you have something to say.
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