The Power of Teaching People Instead of Students
I want to share what I learned this semester in my 12th grade Writer’s Craft class. I learned that I teach people.
I teach individuals. I do not teach students, nor teens, nor learners, nor anyone other than a group of individuals. Their age, experience in the world - or lack thereof, their abilities, their dedication to academic study (or not), their transcripts, their reputations… none of it matters. At all.
I learned that my role is to love them as they are, inspire them to learn, and to empower them to do so without me or anyone else.
Which sounds like a bunch of "New Age" wishy-washy emotional fluff.
Four years ago I would have agreed with you.
But we are thirteen years into the 21st century and only a few of us seem to have really grasped what it means.
What it means is this: most young people have virtually no real intimacy in their lives. Their significant adults lack the ability to guide them, since the terrain changes so rapidly that even if the older people had a clue, they can’t keep up, let alone lead the way. The natural instincts of an adolescent are amplified by social media that exponentially expose them to the forces of sexualized images, “perfect” body types, scrutiny, conflict, popularity contests, cliques, and everything else challenging and potentially awful about adolescence. They need love, kindness, and compassion. This is not something to which they would admit, but it is true, and seeing as time, money, and technological expertise are hard to provide, we might as well love them. It is easier, and it makes an extraordinary difference.
Not surprisingly, is that love, kindness, and compassion are what every human being needs in order to thrive. So why is the default belief in education that being tough on kids is good for them?
Do not assume that the affection I have for my students and the value I place on their emotional well-being means I have low standards or that my students do not work incredibly hard. Our learning environment is demanding in its challenge level and volume of work. What makes their achievements and productivity possible is the enthusiasm we have for our work and the affection and safety we enjoy with each other. This is true for adults in their workforces, too. Where you are respected, valued, and recognized, you perform better. Where you feel safe, you take risks. Where failure is accepted, you innovate. Where there is trust, you collaborate.
People in education often say we need to prepare students for “the real world”, but as people working in education, we’re as far from the “real world” as you can get. If we eliminate pre-conceived and ill-conceived ideas about the “real world” and what it allegedly calls for, we could focus on what human beings call for.
There is no debate about the epidemic of mental health issues, sleep deprivation, stress levels, and financial burdens and fears all North Americans face. Assuming that younger people are not similarly burdened is naïve at the least and mercilessly ageist at the worst. Instead of preparing them for the “real world” by making them miserable sooner, why not acknowledge what we all need - at school and work - and start offering it to each other?
This semester, I experienced extraordinary events in my classroom. This is not to credit myself, but to acknowledge what a shift in attitude wrought. When I welcomed my students as people and treated them like equals, they performed better than ever before. They honestly acknowledged it. In the semester-end reflection I asked for, they said over and over that feeling safe, feeling free, knowing they wouldn’t get in trouble for their opinions and ideas, the peer support and trust we shared, and the opportunities to re-do and re-submit work, made it possible for them to thrive. As a result, there is a student who came into the class hating poetry and is leaving it with poems worthy of publication. There is a student who never bothered to work on his writing because it was always good enough, and is bothered now by nineties instead of seventies. There is the student whose 50% is a victory because it shows not only an improvement of 20%, but also an unexpected defeat of cynicism and laziness. Then there is the student who attended class every day for the first time in three years because she wanted work with us; it goes without saying that her grades went up, too.
The belief that being tough and being nice are mutually exclusive needs to be thrown out with the same urgency with which we must dispose of our industrial model of education. These beliefs and practices no longer apply. In this brave new world, students need to be critical thinkers who love learning and who have the ability to find and discern high quality information. By creating classrooms in which teachers model those qualities and inspire them in their students, we will offer what everyone needs most: love.
Everyone comes into this building from a night somewhere: a safe, warm, cozy home, the street, a night of violence, a night worrying about grocery or gas money, a night hating oneself, or a night spent squirming from embarrassment or crying from heartbreak. Everyone walks through these doors – staff and students – needing and wanting love, acceptance, support, as well as the opportunity to love, support, and accept others. Providing that opportunity could transform schools - and the “real world”, too.