Supporting Teachers to Enrich the Lives of Children (page 3)
In my workshops for educators I describe strategies for nurturing self-discipline, self-dignity, learning, motivation, and resilience in students. At the beginning of these workshops I emphasize a point that may seem obvious but deserves highlighting, namely, that the daily words and actions of teachers can have a lifelong impact on students. Educators may not even be aware of the depth of this impact unless they reflect upon their own experiences as students and the memories they still carry of their teachers years later.
In the late 1980s, while gathering material for my book The Self-Esteem Teacher, I requested that participants in many of my seminars complete an anonymous questionnaire. The first question asked responders to describe one of the best moments they ever had in school as students, a moment that involved something a teacher said or did that boosted their self-esteem and motivation. The second question asked them to recall one of their worst experiences with a teacher that lessened their sense of self-worth. In reviewing approximately 1,500 completed questionnaires I was impressed by the high number of memories, both positive and negative, that involved only a few seconds of a teacher's time. These responses prompted me to write about "the importance of the seemingly small gestures."
In addition to administering the questionnaire, I encouraged audience members to share these memories during the workshop. Many were very willing to do so. The range and intensity of feelings triggered by these memories were evident immediately, both in the person recounting the story and in those listening. Laughter, groans, tears, sighs of disbelief, and applause spontaneously filled the room. These memories evoked strong emotions even if they represented an incident from 50 years ago. Their staying power was noteworthy.
Some participants told me that they were surprised by their strong reaction to school memories from the distant past. One woman displayed tears and anger as she recalled a teacher humiliating her 40 years earlier when she was only six years old; in contrast, tears of joy dotted a man's face as he recounted a particularly poignant story of a teacher who demonstrated great compassion 45 years earlier when the man's mother was dying of cancer. It was little wonder that in The Self-Esteem Teacher I labeled these experiences as "indelible memories of school."
While we might not reflect on our school memories with any regularity, they continue to influence our current feelings and thoughts. I have heard accounts from adults who shudder when faced with doing a simple math problem or having to write a report, still haunted by demeaning comments made by a teacher about their learning skills. I have also witnessed the delight of people as they attribute their optimism and perseverance to encouragement they received years earlier from a teacher.
When I ask educators to consider their most positive and negative interactions with their teachers I do so not simply as an academic experience. I believe that teachers, parents, and other caregivers should view their childhood memories as valuable resources when they engage children. It is for this reason that I pose the following questions for teachers:
"Do you use your own indelible school memories to guide what you do with your students?"
"Do you inject into your classroom practices those experiences you had with a teacher that enhanced your self-esteem and motivation as a student?"
"Are you careful not to say or do things even unintentionally with your students that were hurtful to you when you were a student?"
Many educators have reported that considering these questions has helped them to be more effective teachers. School administrators have informed me that they have introduced these questions at staff meetings so that their entire faculty might examine their teaching practices in order to create positive school memories for their students.
Given my longstanding interest in education, learning, school climate, and school memories, I was drawn to the cover story that appeared in the February 25, 2008 issue of Time titled "How to Make Great Teachers" by Claudia Wallis. I was immediately captured by Wallis' opening statement, "We never forget our best teachers—those who imbued us with a deeper understanding or an enduring passion, the ones we come back to visit after graduating, the educators who opened doors and altered the course of our lives."
Wallis continues with a description of two such teachers in her life whose teaching style and passion for their work touched her deeply. She notes, "Looking back, I'd have to credit this inspirational pair for carving the path that led me to a career writing about science."
I would add to Wallis' observation, "We never forget our best teachers" with my belief, supported by the feedback I have received from many educators, that we never forget our worst teachers either. Interestingly and sadly, many educators in my workshops report that they have less difficulty recalling negative memories of school than positive ones.
After describing two of her inspirational teachers, Wallis raises several thought-provoking questions. "It would be wonderful if we knew more about teachers such as these and how to multiply their number. How do they come by their craft? What qualities and capacities do they possess? Can these abilities be measured? Can they be taught? Perhaps above all: How should excellent teaching be rewarded so that the best teachers—the most competent, caring, and compelling—remain in a profession known for low pay, low status and soul-crushing bureaucracy?" Wallis says that answers to these questions are urgent, especially with the United States having to recruit an additional 2.8 million teachers over the next eight years as baby boomers retire, a situation occurring while student enrollment increases and staff turnover, especially among new teachers, continues to persist.
Wallis' article reviews several key issues confronting teachers, one of the thorniest of which is merit pay. What data should enter the formula to assess "merit"? How does one determine in an equitable fashion the effectiveness of teachers working in a school with many seemingly at-risk students compared with those in a school in which there are a limited number of such students? Obviously, the playing field is not equal in different schools and communities, placing some teachers at a distinct disadvantage when measuring student progress.
Permission to reprint granted by Dr. Robert Brooks. All rights reserved.
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