Sunday, January 16, 2011

A teacher's legacy

The following rant is my grumpy reaction to David L Macaulay's recent stream of consciousness post where he talks about a teacher: "He bawled at me to look at my tables book and I buried my head in it, so deeply that I wasn't coming up for air. Suddenly the light was cut off again and I realized in horror I had missed the cue to put my book down."  You'll find the whole post here: (Brits in the USA).

I felt quite distressed when I read this, and was compelled to respond.  In no way am I implying that what follows is a reflection on David, his life or experiences.

Working as a Study Skills teacher I've supported many students keen to gain the education they missed when they were young. I've heard countless heart-wrenching stories from mature adults dreadfully hurt and wary of the school system, which in their experience was unsupportive. Then there are the refugees, finally finding safety far from their country of birth, confused, misunderstood and perplexed about our local culture and language, yet desperately trying to fit in and find a productive role to play in their new home.

I acknowledge that there are extremely challenging students that teachers face daily. Some are certainly very, very difficult kids. It's no excuse though. We need to do better. Better teacher training, more appropriate resources, better facilities ... the list goes on and on, forever maybe, but our education systems desperately need to improve to benefit all learners.

Governments in countries where it's affordable, need to be generous is their response to the needs of children and schools; the individual students, their families, their classrooms, our diverse communities, and our countries will reap the benefits - not just for one generation, but for many years to come.

The following quote from the  Winter 2011 edition of 'Brain World' captures beautifully the awesome power of a teacher. As I've noted before (here) and which you can read in many articles, such as this one appearing in Life's a Poodle, the power of a teacher can be used for good or ill.  It sometimes seems that too many teachers become complacent (or were always ignorant) about their impact on fragile lives, and this forgetting has ramifications for years to come.
"I have come to a frightening conclusion." writes Haim Ginott, in his book Between Parent and Child: The Bestselling Classic That Revolutionized Parent-child Communication (Three Rivers Press, 2003). "I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I posses tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child de-humanized or humanized."
I'd like that quote to be writ large and for all teachers to read it before they enter a classroom; to reflect again at the end of each day, asking "How well did I perform today?" "How can I improve tomorrow?" and if they need help and support to achieve that aim, for that help to be readily, generously and uncritically available.

and in another part of the magazine:
Parents and teachers make learning more memorable for children not by threats of punishment but by bonding their thinking and learning with their emotions. There are two consequences of punishment - both negative- that should be kept clearly in mind:
First, when stressed, people show a heightened amount of activity in the amygdala... During these stressful episodes, there is a reduction in higher-order ... activity... in the regions of the brain responsible for generating complex intelligent solutions.
The negative impact of fear on learning
Basically, you can't think clearly if you've got a large, powerful person standing over you, threatening verbally, and being intimidating by their sheer furious presence or shouting. Equally frightening can be vicious, under the breath threats uttered in a hissing tone. 

During one of my study skills classes with a group of adults who I'd been working with for some weeks, we, as a group decided to do a role play. I introduced and explained the scenario above, and after extensive discussion and gaining the permission of the entire class, including the student who'd volunteered to play the child being growled at, we role-played this scenario: 

I (on the short side) stood over the seated adult male student and shouted at him (not loudly, I'm not good at and don't enjoy role plays). He was a large bloke. Standing, he towered over me. After this short, pretend outburst, the group, including the "victim" discussed their reactions at length. 

The effect is sobering. A short person, in a position of perceived power, is intimidating, even when the students are adults, and even when the group is prepared and knows what's going to happen.

The observers in the class discussed how they also felt afraid, not only for the victim, but on the off-chance they would be targeted next. They wanted to fade away. This group trusted and respected me. Imagine if they had reason to fear me.

Angry parents
The parents among them were convinced they'd remember this class when they wanted to shout at their own children. They said they really understood how frightening they'd appear to their children when they're angry - the impact was so powerful, and they felt so powerless.

I want teachers, parents and employers to remember this: No one learns well when they're being yelled at.

Pay attention!
Second, students and children are frequently and unfairly admonished for "not paying attention". Their little brains are processing over four billion bits of information every single second! So they are paying attention to a myriad of things; the teacher, the parent or the lecture just don't happen to be among them at the moment. However, once the content is made personally relevant, we have their undivided attention."
And remember, we're not talking about kids who have a difficult home life here, just regular kids, no learning difficulties, no dyslexia, no ADD or ADHD, or Auditory Processing Disorder or Autism Spectrum Disorder - nothing out of the ordinary. How much more difficult is learning for the kids who need additional help and understanding?

We can do so much to support students in their learning. Huge amounts of research have been conducted into how to create a learning environment that supports all students. We know how to improve outcomes for all students - and cutting funding isn't the way

Sadly, I'm not confident of positive change to our education system any time to soon.

John Medina's "brain rules" has lots of accessible, relevant, easy to read nerdy stuff about the brain, or visit

For a great read on schooling in Pakistan and how vital schooling is in underdeveloped countries, (indeed for the whole world) borrow or buy "Three  Cups of Tea. One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time" Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.


I think I'm off my soapbox for now, but I need a 'post rant' cup of tea.



David L Macaulay said...

Thanks for the mention, Sue. Well actually my primary school was atypical because it was run by a shell shocked war veteran and his cronies. They were big on beatings and intimidation. You wouldn't get away with it today as corporal punishment is no longer allowed.

sue said...

Just as well David. Unfortunately I've met some teachers who go into the system for reasons more to do with a need for power over little kids than for a genuine desire to teach. Thank goodness they can't get their cruel kicks out of inflicting corporal punishment.

I'm impressed you survived relatively unscathed! You must be strong.