Sunday, March 31, 2013

My Teacher Makes Me Feel...

Recently, I came across a blog that discussed the negative bent when entering "My teacher makes me feel..." in the Google search bar. Teachers are apparently making their students feel uncomfortable, stupid or bad. Anxious, alone and angry also pop up. So naturally, I wonder what's up with the disconnect between teachers and students. Or is the disconnect between students and education in general?

Certainly there are teachers out there who should have left the profession long ago, but that is by no means the majority of teachers. Couple this with our brain's natural propensity for looking at the negative and we have a perfect storm of classic Freudian projection. So what's happening?

In my own experience with students, I find that often students do have a 'tape' in their heads that they are stupid and this message was in place long before the kids ever got to me. These kids often are the ones who are making low grades, have low skill sets and perform in the bottom 10th percentile. These kids need intervention.

Even among the more intelligent students, I often hear them say things like, "I can't believe I did that. I'm so stupid." I always challenge such aspersions. I always say, "No, you just weren't thinking and THAT'S different from being stupid." Every person on the planet has moments where they aren't thinking clearly.

What these kids need is to change the tape that's running in their heads. They don't need to keep telling themselves they are stupid, they need to tell themselves they need to work diligently. For those who need intervention, I have the conversation that learning is hard. It's not an easy thing. Do some people find it easy? Yes, but that's mostly because they also find it rather enjoyable.

This is no easy task, but it helps when teachers act as support systems and directly teach them about how human brains work and why they may be challenged as learners. I've had students realize their mistake in thinking and I've also had kids who learned to articulate what they did wrong (goofing off, racking up zeroes), how they could change it (staying after, getting tutoring help, doing homework) and what they can do differently.

I've also had students learn to communicate their goals. This helps enormously. If they can tell me their goals, then I can remind them of their goals on a regular basis. When I know a student wants to get into a certain college I can ask, "Is this the work of a UVA student?" when they turn in incomplete or sub-par work. It gets them thinking about what that work looks like and what they can do to get their work up to that level.

I had a student a few years back that failed Freshman English, not once, but twice. His third go around, we discussed what his goal(s) were. He wanted to graduate from high school. He had the tape that he wasn't smart, he was stupid. I challenged that tape repeatedly and when he fell into those thinking patterns, I asked, "How does this behavior or thought help you reach your goal?" He often said it didn't.

I nearly lost this student to the GED program, but upon initial testing, he didn't have the minimum skill set to even make it into the program. I kept the dialogue open though and before he and I knew it, he was working really, really hard to pass English class. He passed Freshman English that year and is slated to graduate.

The teacher's role is to act as an advocate for students--even when it feels you're advocating for a kid who won't advocate for him/herself. Then, and only then, do we even have a hope of changing those Google search  terms. I'm not optimistic enough to believe they'll suddenly become, "My teacher makes me feel AMAZING!!!" but I am optimistic enough to believe that my influence in my sphere can help influence my kids to become better learners. And maybe, just maybe, one day they'll love learning too.

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