You are leaving? I am so mad at you! You are definitely going? Then, go… I’m not going to say anything bad to you. But I’m mad at you…
The note from ‘B’, my student continued along these lines. His had been an extremely difficult home life and he grew up to be ‘tough.’ B was invariably involved in a physical fight every week; he didn’t care if it was an adult or a peer. He was verbally aggressive when limits were set. He was disruptive in class and teased his classmates when they attended to their work. One day, I had B help me tutor a much younger student. He was very patient and I watched him adapt the materials on his own. At one point the younger student began to make loud noises. As I prepared for fireworks or at least a disruption, B asked the other student in a calm voice, “Hey that noise is bothering me…can you keep it down?”
I think we both changed after that incident. I stopped making assumptions about B whenever he was involved in an incident with other students. I had always made accommodations for the side effects of his medications, put him in groups with calmer peers and adapted some of the materials. The difference was in my attitude towards B. I think he sensed it and in turn showed it in his behavior. He tried to follow rules, asked for quiet times when he was really upset (instead of lashing out) and sought help to stay on top of his grades. It wasn’t perfect but still a big change.
A couple of years later I moved to a different city. Just before I moved I got this letter from B, written during his counseling session. I read it every now and then—to remember how my attitude impacts my students’ behavior.
A veteran teacher shared this perspective on during a discussion about how students’ performance is influenced by teachers attitudes
As a child, I moved around a lot, thanks to my dad’s job. I went to different schools in different states all over India. Remember how everyone talks about their teachers at ‘get togethers?’ Just go to Facebook…there are plenty of shared memories. I remember my teachers—the good and the bad. Students can sense when someone is honestly interested in their education and their lives. Some teachers model right and wrong by their behavior while others are proponents of “do as I say, not as I do.”
Students spend a good chunk of their wakening hours with teachers. As a society, we Indians are more in tuned to respecting authority—or at least not questioning them in the appropriate manner. (Of course, there are always the incidences of violently questioning your teachers…emphasizing the need for mental health support in schools). But I remember instances of teachers being extremely disrespectful to my classmates, their comments making prejudice a virtue. As an adult I look back and understand that these were power struggles—after all the children couldn’t talk back (not many parents had the temerity to stand up for their child in those days).
A few months back a group of friends were discussing our school days. One of my friends commented that because teachers were so strict, we grew up to be ‘proper’ adults. Others disagreed strongly. One comment stood out in my mind—we tend to think that humiliating someone in the name of discipline is okay. How true is that? Isn’t it still very common for teachers (from all backgrounds) to call their students names and mock them for making mistakes. When questioned they argue that this is teaching the student to grow up ‘morally right’, whatever that means!
My next thought was that we were all reasonably well adjusted adults. What happens to children who struggle due to events beyond their control or who have some adjustment problems? How do teachers attitudes affect students’ emotional well-being and academic performance?
Lots of studies report on the effects of teachers attitudes on students’ performances. We just have to reflect on our own experiences to see the correlation between these factors. Which student did the teacher call frequently for answers? Whose work got the most compliments in class? Who was most often the teacher’s helper?
On the flip side, who got the most sarcastic remarks from the teacher? Which student got yelled at more often? Who was sidelined by the ‘studious’ kids for being stupid? How did the class dynamics play out—did all the students help or at least be polite to one another? Or did they group themselves into the ‘smart/cool’ group and looked down on the ‘dumb’ lot? Who set the tone for the class? Were they imitating the teacher?
How can we teachers ensure that we support the vulnerable child?
Keep an open mind—making assumptions based on our prejudices is a big hurdle to our students’ well-being.
Believe the child is trying his best—it may not be what you want but recognize the effort. Your faith is highly motivating to a student who is already convinced of his ‘inability’.
Listen to the student—there is a point being made, either verbally or through the behavior. What is the student trying to communicate? Should you be concerned about the home life or are there other areas of concern?
Increase knowledge base—sometimes, the student does not have control over the behavior. The more you know about mental health, the better you understand the reasons behind this lack of control.
Employ behavior management techniques—just because a child can’t always control his behavior, doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t try to do so some of the times. Do this systematically—a haphazard method makes the behavior worse.
Adapt and modify instruction and materials in the classroom—Give reign to your creativity and flexibility. Show your student(s) you enjoy teaching your subject. Your enthusiasm will rub off on your students, even if it is at varying degrees.
Work with the parents—after all they want what’s best for their child. Both your expectations may differ but try to meet them halfway.