The Nine Lives of a Teacher

I don’t think many teachers would dispute this rule of thumb: “Treat every child equally.” It goes without saying, you try to be fair and not show favoritism or dislike to any one child, even if those are your gut feelings. Although every teacher tries to fulfill this prophecy, and some do, some of the time; few, however, succeed all of the time. Have a look at what these nine children have to say. Do you see yourself in any of their observations?

1. Joel “What I can’t stand about by teacher is the way she bosses us around. `Pick up those papers!’ `Stop talking!’ `Start working!’ Nobody has a name. It’s just like she’s the boss and we’re a bunch of little robots she orders around.”

Children are no different from us: they don’t like being commanded. You can avoid the sergeant major syndrome by describing a situation and letting children figure out on their own what has to be done. For instance, “Vic, your papers are on the floor,” tells Vic what is wrong. He reaches his own conclusions about what to do. This approach brings about less resistance and instead invites cooperation from children.

2. Shelley “My teacher’s favorite word is `Why.’ `Why did you say that?’ `Why do you forget everything I tell you?’ `Why are you so happy?’ Everything starts off with `Why.’ How do I know `Why’; I just do it. As soon as I hear that word I know something’s wrong, and maybe I’m gonna get in trouble. So I start thinking about my excuse and how I’m going to get out of it.”

“Why” is a loaded word. It implies to children they’ve done something wrong. “Why” also puts children on the spot, because they have to come up with a reason, which they may not have. Children often don’t know why they do what they do. By asking them “Why,” you’re setting them up for telling you a lie or making an excuse. Instead of asking the question “Why?” try repeating what children say or do, and see how they respond. You could say, “Cherise, you forgot how to draw the circle…” or “My, Cherise, you seem happy today…” This encourages children to talk more. For one, your comment is neutral so children don’t feel like you’re accusing them of a wrongdoing. Secondly, your observation feels like it’s not complete, and children are more than eager to fill in the missing pieces.

3. Lauren “My teacher pretends she really cares about you, but you know deep down she couldn’t care less. She’s so phony. I see her turning her back and smirking or rolling her eyes whenever somebody says something dumb. She always says, `For you, anything,’ but then she never does what you ask her to. And then one time I did a really lousy job on my picture; just to see what she would say. She said it was the prettiest picture she ever saw!”

Kids are smart. You can’t pretend to like them and care about them when you really don’t. Don’t try to be nice when you don’t feel nice. They’ll see through your disguise and peg you as a phony. Try being more honest with your feelings. If you’re mad, say it, but say it without hurting anybody’s feelings. Be real. Describe what you see, how you feel, and what you expect. Don’t try to be a saint!

The other point Lauren makes is that you can go overboard with praising. You want to be positive, but you don’t want to be gushy. Kids know when you’re faking it, and just saying things to make them feel good, without meaning it. It’s better to give children a true reflection of how hard you think they tried on their work. If Lauren’s picture is a mess, but you think she tried her best, make a positive comment like, “Wow, I’ve never seen so many different colours on one page,” or “I can tell you put a lot of feeling into your picture.” This way you’re not being untruthful by saying it’s “Fantastic,” but you are acknowledging Lauren’s effort. On the other hand, if you know Lauren simply splashed some paint on her picture, say so, but in a nice way. For instance, “Were you in a hurry today Lauren? Your picture looks rushed.”

4. Kingsley “The other day my teacher told me I would end up in jail if I didn’t watch it. You know I never thought I was that bad, but maybe I am. I wish my teacher never said that. I don’t want to go to jail.”

Teachers sometimes make off-hand comments, not because they really mean it or even think it, but to scare children into being straight. The problem is, sometimes these scare tactics work–for a while anyway, so teachers keep on using them. In the meantime seeds of doubt are planted in children’s minds. Kids think that because teachers have more power and they’re supposed to be right, they must be right. Children live up to the expectations their teachers and parents have of them. If you’re going to make destinies for your students make them doctors and successful entrepreneurs, not convicts and unemployed bums.

5. Taylor “My teacher is like a cat. She walks up and down the aisles in our classroom, deciding which mouse she’s going to pounce on next. If she thinks you’re not paying attention, she’ll all of a sudden say, `Do you know the answer to that question Taylor?’ Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t, but the thing is, I’m too afraid to say anything in case I’m wrong. So I just go beet-red, and don’t say anything. Then she thinks I wasn’t listening, but she doesn’t know.”

The strategy of keeping children alert by pulling the occasional sneak-attack on them can backfire on you. You might embarrass the wrong child. Many children don’t think well when they’re put on the spot, and draw a blank when they really do know the answer. They’re nervous about being wrong, or they don’t like to talk in front of their classmates, or they’re confused about the question–it could be one of many reasons. Never forget that children have feelings and every time you embarrass them, you’re taking their feelings for granted. You can get a more accurate measure of who’s listening by asking everyone to write down what you’ve just said. This way you’re not singling anyone out, and no one has to perform when they don’t want to.

6. Cathy “My teacher is really smart. He’s so smart, he’s stupid. What I mean is, you can’t ask him anything without getting some big long drawn-out explanation that doesn’t make sense. He uses words I’ve never even heard of before. Then if you ask him what so-and-so word means, he says, `Look it up, that’s what you have a dictionary for.’ I think he thinks by him using big words we’ll get smarter. But really what we’re getting is dumber, because nobody is learning anything.”

When I was young I was always impressed by people who used big words. “Geez, they must be really smart to use words like that,” I thought. Now I realize that it’s harder to use small words than big words, and most smart people know enough not to talk over the heads of their audience. You owe it to your students to talk at their level, and to keep your messages short and sweet. If you want to inspire your children to learn, make it interesting and fun for them, not baffling and boring.

7. Joanna “My mom and dad don’t get along. They fight a lot. It’s hard on me and my brother. I go to school and I wonder if my dad’s coming home that night or not. I guess my teacher can tell something is bugging me. Every morning she asks me if there’s anything I’d like to talk to her about. I always say, `No.’ Then she asks me how my mom and dad are doing. I know she knows, because I heard my mom tell her. She wants me to spill my guts and tell her everything I feel. But I don’t want to. I could never open up to my teacher. She’s not my type. I wish she would leave me alone. It’s not right for her to pry into my feelings anyways. My feelings are my own, and I should be allowed to do what I want with them.”

Times have changed. Children’s emotional health has vaulted from a non-issue to a major concern for educators. We have special classes, special people, special tests, special learning tools, even special food to meet the needs of special children. A new direction was long overdue, but have we now gone too far the other way. We dig up children’s histories, delve into their family life, dissect and measure their personalities, and try to wrench loose their inner most secrets. We have to remember that children are not like paramesium; we can’t put them under a microscope and watch them swim. Children are entitled to privacy the same way we as adults demand it.

If you have a child in your class whom you think needs to talk, try spending more time with her without asking any direct or even indirect questions. Very often feelings are expressed when people are relaxed and feel at ease. You may have experienced this yourself after having a few drinks at a party or bar. The next morning you wake up wondering why you revealed all those intimate secrets to a virtual stranger. Try to remember that standing beside your desk with twenty to thirty pairs of listening ears close by may not be the right time or place for a child to talk. And, if you have problems getting along with a child to begin with, you may not be the right person to help. Don’t be offended if children reject your helping hand. Accept the notion graciously that you can’t be everything to everyone, and ask someone else to spend time with the child.

8. Richard “This is what bugs me about my teacher: he never lets me feel the way I want to feel. Like the other day I told him I was too scared to try the vault. He says, `Oh, come on now, you’re not going to let a vault make you scared are you? Look at Charles, he’s flying over just like a bird, no problem.’ Then I can feel my face burning up because everyone is thinking I’m a sissy for being afraid.”

As parents and teachers we must always respect children’s feelings, no matter how out-of-place they seem to us. There’s a saying by William Middleton, “We should not make light of the troubles of children. They are worse than ours, because we can see the end of our trouble and they can never see any end.” By denying their feelings we are saying there’s something wrong with them feeling that way. This confuses children and piles more feelings on top of the ones they already have. When you tell a child who’s afraid, he has nothing to be afraid of, you’re either going to make him more afraid, mad, or anxious.

When you think about it, the main reason we deny children’s feelings is because we ourselves are uncomfortable with them, and don’t know what to do or say. The teacher doesn’t let Richard be afraid of the vault, because the teacher doesn’t know what to say or do to when Richard is afraid. Parents don’t let their children say, “I’m mad at you,” because parents don’t know how to deal with anger directed at them. It would be more reassuring to Richard if his teacher said, “I don’t blame you for being scared Richard; it’s a big vault.” At least then Richard knows his feelings are okay and his teacher accepts them. This may give him the reassurance he needs to try.

9. Jackson “My teacher likes to be funny. She’s always making jokes–about us. `Frogs have tiny little brains like so-and-so.’ `Grade five is going to be lots of fun; it’s too bad so-and-so won’t be going.’ `If we had a Chatty Club, so-and-so would make a good president.’ It’s her way of keeping us on our toes. Nobody likes to have the whole class laughing at you. I don’t think it’s fair. How would she like it if we made fun of her whenever we felt like it.”

Sarcasm is not a good cure for misbehaviour, although it does work. If Johnny is reading a comic book during your math class and you make a dig at him, chances are he’ll put the book down, but he’ll also be thinking in the back of his head, “I’ll get you back for this,” or “What a creep, I can’t stand you,”–thoughts not exactly conducive to a healthy school attitude. Most children don’t like to be turned into a laughing stock, and you can’t blame them.

At the same time, children need to learn how to take a joke. There’s a saying, “You never really grow up until you take the first laugh at yourself.” Being able to laugh at your own mistakes is a sign of self-confidence. It’s okay to poke a little fun at children, so long you do it in a nice way. If you say something funny about a child, say it with a smile or wink, to make sure nobody takes it the wrong way.