Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Teachers, Instruction, Relationships

(A quick post--I'm thinking through these issues--the brain surgery analogy makes sense to me, though it may come out of left field for some other people... Also, I'm not sure why the font switches size or style--I wrote it all out at the same time, I think!)

Teachers are not brain surgeons--we are much more important...

Teachers are not brain surgeons.  I sometimes wish we were.  Surgeons get paid a lot, and surgeons get to feel like they're DOING something, get to feel like there is a clear problem and they are going to fix it.  Plus, their job is a lot easier than the jobs of regular doctors or of teachers, because they don't have to deal with difficult people.  The people they deal with are easy to deal with, because they are asleep.

While we teachers may wish we had anaesthetists to put our students to sleep before we worked on them, and while we may wish that what made the difference was the actions we ourselves did directly, rather than those we helped other people do, our lives are not so simple.

A lot of teacher discourse sounds like we are like surgeons, focusing on what the teacher does to, not with, the students, just as m
uch of the discourse about reading education avoids the term "reading" and relies heavily on terms like "instruction",  "skills", "strategies", and so on. These terms--like the term "teaching" itself--make it sound like we are either conveying information in a gradgrindian way (filling little vessels with facts!) or else instructing children in a step-by-step process, as if we are ambulatory instruction manuals.  

But English teachers are not instruction manuals.  What's ironic is that just as teachers in other disciplines are getting away from "instruction" by, for instance, flipping the classroom, so that the teacher works instead as a coach, we English teachers, who arguably have less to "teach" than teachers in "the content areas", are constantly being told about "instruction."

Why would we want to be instruction manuals?  Instruction manuals don't actually work very well, because most people don't like to use them. Most instruction manuals, like the one in the John Ashbery poem, lead not to understanding, but to our dreaming of Guadalajara, or of some other place we have never been.  

Teachers are neither surgeons, operating directly on the brains of etherized students, nor ambulatory instruction manuals, mechanically dispensing information.  We are people dealing with other people, and the important things we do are to create conditions in which kids will want to read and write, and to help kids pay attention to their own reading and writing.  This may involve instruction, but often it does not.

Relationship before task

I once peeked at the "Course Expectations" a wise colleague of mine was handing out on the first day of the year.  My colleague told his students that when people were doing difficult tasks, studies had shown that they could do them better and longer if there were only another person in the room.  His goal that year, he had written to his students, was to be, for them, that "other person in the room."

I thought about my colleague's words when I was talking with my wife the other day.  My wife has been doing a fair amount of SAT tutoring recently, and she tells me that parents often talk as if what she will be doing with their children is sharing with them the "strategies" and "tricks" that she learned in her time as a high-achieving student at ivy league colleges and her stints as a college instructor at elite universities.  The truth is, she said, that when she and her students work on the reading sections of the SAT, what she mainly does is sit with the students while the students figure it out for themselves.  What I really do, she said, is to help them to see their own thought processes.  In order to help them do so, she needs to build a strong relationship with the student--so she always spends some time chatting with her students about what's important to them, what's going on in their lives.

My department chair is right to be fond of the dictum, "Relationship before task."  The task is the responsibility of the students; the relationship is our responsibility. 

Building Relationships (more wise colleagues!)

In today's department meeting, we were treated to a presentation by a couple of our colleagues who have been systematically investigating the ways in which they build relationships with their students.  Relationships with students, they said, are built through the many small moments, the micro-interactions, that we have each day with individual students.  They offered a set of helpful guidelines for handling these little moments, many of which may present themselves to us as difficult or annoying.  Many of these guidelines were familiar from parenting books I've found helpful in dealing with my own kids at home (acknowledge, validate, try non-verbal response, give benefit of the doubt, start with observation, not judgment, offer student choice to provide solution, etc.), but I realized that I hadn't given much conscious thought to how they applied to dealing with students, and it was helpful to have them made explicit.

As these guidelines may show, our wise colleagues encouraged us to detach ourselves from our annoyance, see our students with compassion, and use these sometimes-difficult moments to build stronger human relationships with our students.  To illustrate their wisdom, our colleagues told a few stories and showed us some video they had taken.

One wonderful story was this: when one of these colleagues was a student teacher, she went with her mentor teacher and their students on an overnight trip early in the year.  At a certain point late in the night, one student went missing.  The mentor teacher was annoyed and upset, and clearly, said my colleague, angry with the student who had slipped away.  When they finally found the student, my colleague expected her mentor teacher to light into the kid, or at least show that she was upset.  Instead, she told us, the master teacher opened her arms, gave the kid a huge hug, and said, "We were so worried about you!"  For my colleague, this was an eye-opening experience--and as she told the story, we were right there with her.  A good teacher doesn't let her students off the hook, but always shows that she cares about them.  If she doesn't, they won't learn.  According to my colleague, that kid, who was going through a difficult time, had a good relationship with her teachers for the rest of the year.

The video that our colleagues shared was also really interesting.  The clips we watched were only a minute or two each, but it was amazing how much was happening in those minutes.  I've never seen so clearly how a good teacher can have a dozen meaningful interactions, with a dozen different students, in the course of only a minute or two.  A look, a wave, a few words--each time this happened, a relationship was strengthened and a student was helped to, as my wife says, see his or her own thought process.  My colleagues were holding up a mirror--a compassionate mirror--to their students, and their students clearly felt supported, cared for, and encouraged.

Not brain surgeons, not instructors, but people!

These colleagues have also spent a lot of time working together on planning classroom activities (how to introduce books, how to facilitate discussions, structures for bringing out responses and helping students to organize their thinking, etc.), but very little of what they do is what I would call "instruction".  They are not brain surgeons, not instruction manuals, but people, helping other people.


  1. Your students are lucky to have you as a teacher. And I think that your emphasis on relationships is crucial. Sometimes I worry that teachers forget that their students are not only people, but children who are growing. Let's help them develop in holistic ways as people! I find your analogy to brain surgery helpful. A less extreme analogy would be to compare school to a gym where each teacher is instructed to strengthen one particular muscle in the trainee's body, without thought to the overall health and well being of the entire person, and without a general confidence in the body's own ability to remain healthy and strong if it is just used in a natural way--which, of course, would include actually getting outside and moving around and doing meaningful, constructive tasks, such as gardening, building, etc. in community and outside of the assembly line work force we have now.