When Teachers Face Themselves

When Teachers Face Themselves

Martin Haberman - August 24, 2009
Distinguished Professor Emeritus
University of Wisconsin Milwaukee

Copyright† Haberman Educational Foundation
Delia Stafford, President
4018 Martinshire Drive
Houston, Texas† 77025

With And Without Self Understanding

Teaching is a difficult, complex activity and it is to be expected that reasonable people will be engulfed by feelings of self doubt. "Why am I emotionally drained and physically exhausted?" "Can I really keep doing this?"††"I need more time and energy for my own kids and family."††Teachers' anxiety††results from the fact that their work¬† and personal behaviors are constantly being judged:† by administrators, by their students, by parents, by†other members of the school staff† and by test scores. Having one's behavior under constant scrutiny and evaluation inevitably creates††pressures. These pressures††generate some degree of anxiety in anyone who assumes the role of teacher. The reason some teachers can function successfully† in these highly judgmental situations while others cannot is that effective teachers have the willingness and ability to recognize and††deal with their own emotions. By facing themselves they reach higher levels of self understanding. Greater self awareness leads them to understand what makes them anxious and angry. Knowing and being able to predict† what makes them angry enables them† to redirect† impulsive negative behavior†into positive responses.

At the same time†that teachers are judged they are also judges. They continually judge everyone else in the school, particularly their students, their students' families and administrators. Just as they are judged--sometimes reasonably frequently¬† not --¬† they constantly evaluate everything and everybody in the school community. Teachers' ¬†evaluations of the people and the conditions under which they work¬† are based primarily on a single criterion: "Is this person helping me or making my work more difficult?" It is an egocentric view of the world in which teachers judge administrators¬† not on the basis of whether they are competent leaders achieving the goals of the school but on whether they¬† support specific teacher acts, e.g. ¬†"If I kick a kid out does the principal ¬†back me up and punish him severely or does he just talk to him and send him back?" They don't judge parents ¬†¬†¬†in terms of how much they love ¬†their children but¬† by "Do they make sure their kids do their homework?" They¬† don't judge ¬†school psychologists in terms of their¬† competence in assessing normal behavior but by ¬†" Do they support my decision to classify a kid as having special needs when I say¬† that kid can't be managed?" ¬†Evaluating the people around them primarily in terms of "What do they do for me?" ¬†is an egocentric view of the world ¬†which inevitably leads many teachers to feel they don't get the support they need to perform their jobs. As a result, they feel they are being ¬†unfairly ¬†judged and given insufficient respect.¬† These defensive reactions are¬† not surprising given the continuous judgments being made about teachers by those in ¬†schools and in the general public. Many teachers feel personally threatened by the fact ¬†that ¬†everyone not only knows what teachers should be doing but believes that they should be doing it better.

The school is, in effect, a judgmental pressure cooker in which all who participate are both victims and generators of  anxiety. Unfortunately for   students, large numbers of teachers remain in teaching who cannot function under  constant pressure. Such teachers cope by detaching themselves emotionally from people and from the conditions of work.  They stop seeking ways to improve and simply go through the motions of teaching. They slide from would-be professionals into  job-holders into  burn outs-- and the goal of  a burnout is to simply  get through the day with the least hassle--it is  not to improve teaching and learning. At the same time, a smaller number of teachers are able to function effectively under even the most debilitating conditions of work. A major difference between great teachers and the burnouts is their willingness to face themselves and improve their level of self understanding. Great teachers know two critically important things about themselves.  What makes them demonstrate anxious and angry and   how to  cope with their anger so they do not "lose it" or escalate petty annoyances into major problems that interfere with teaching and   learning.

Without a willingness to improve their understanding of themselves and their reactions to the many negative conditions of work,  burned out teachers blame  the administrators and "the system" for their failures.  Most of all, they blame students who are merely the victims of their  feelings of inadequacy.   By defining the causes of all  problems as external to themselves they  never get to the point of reflecting about what situations make them most  anxious and angry.   Clearly, there are  large numbers of ineffective administrators, dysfunctional schools, poor parents, unreasonable demands and students with problems.  But it is necessary to recognize that teachers vary in their ability to cope with these conditions. Misguided teachers  make the naive assumption that problems should not exist and  that if  problems do arise they should be dealt with by final solutions that resolve them once and for all. Such teachers see the world in terms of "what should be" rather than "what is" and inevitably  become frustrated with having to deal with the same issues again and again. Unfortunately for such teachers, the misbehaving students they kick out of their classrooms cannot be made to disappear--they are invariably  sent  back.  The  resources they need for more and better teaching materials and equipment are never adequate and budget cutbacks are the rule not the exception. The constant pressure to raise  test scores  never subsides-- it  only increases. The prediction about schooling that can be made with the greatest certainty is  that the same unresolved issues--and the same student problems-- will have to be dealt with again and again. If a teacher's idealized vision of a satisfactory position is one that is problem free he is seeking a position in the best of all non-existent worlds.

When teachers face themselves they have taken the first step toward greater self-understanding and enhanced performance. It is the inability of quitter/failure teachers to face themselves that leads to their demise. A major benefit of facing oneself is an increased recognition and acceptance of one's mistakes. Many beginning teachers  believe they can walk into a school building with its particular history and culture and simply begin functioning effectively   from day one without making mistakes. Many experienced teachers believe they can show up every day without planning and simply make assignments which everyone will understand and complete. (Where there is no planning there is no teaching.)  The unwillingness to examine their own behaviors prevents such teachers from admitting to their own inadequacies. Teachers who do not recognize or admit mistakes  prevent themselves from  understanding that they are not only causing most of their own problems but that they are  escalating  them into even more serious dilemmas.  

Teachers as well as students learn by doing. Indeed, it is the ultimate method of learning. We learn our behaviors, all our behaviors.  Every teacher action engenders reactions which are followed by assessments and corrections. Teachers become more effective by the very process of  making missteps --mostly unimportant but also some major ones--then  reflecting on their mistakes and engaging in a constant process of self correction. The feedback that enables  teachers' self-correction comes from not only  the feedback of others but from their  self examination of  feelings and reactions to events. Without the willingness to face themselves teachers explain all their problems as entirely caused by others. They never come to grips with their own fallibility and their own strengths and weaknesses. Once  teachers lapse into the burnout mode of going through the motions without examining themselves they no longer benefit from more  experience. Such teachers may claim to have ten, twenty or thirty years of experience. What they really have is  one year of experience thirty times. Teacher growth, like student growth, is the result of learning and practicing new behaviors. It is only when learning is at hand that growth occurs. In the absence of learning everything is merely a process of aging.

A reasonable amount of anxiety is helpful for teaching and learning anything.  Anxiety keeps us moving ahead and working hard. At some  point however each of us crosses a threshold above which increased anxiety leads to increased anger and a need for greater control. Faced with  more anxiety than they can tolerate many teachers try to calm themselves by  seeking  extreme levels of control.  Teachers who exceed their tolerance for anxiety  demonstrate angry  behaviors when they cannot achieve the level of control they feel they need.  This  engenders angry  student responses  which in turn fuels the teacher's anger still further.  The teacher then escalates problems which he would not have caused in the first instance if he understood the things that make him anxious enough to show  anger.  If teachers cannot  control their   anger  they   inevitably  escalate their interactions with students into problems.

Teachers most common source of frustration is  student misbehavior and the perception that they are not getting support from administrators in dealing with this behavior. Frustration leads to aggression which  is  manifested as  hostility. In a few cases teachers direct this hostility toward themselves and denigrate themselves as helpless and inadequate. In most cases however teachers' hostility is directed at others: the students, administrators, parents and the system.  Many teachers  have much undirected  ("free floating") hostility because they have not reflected on their own feelings and reactions. They do not recognize that feelings of hostility fuel their anxieties and leave  them in a perpetual state of anger...ready to explode and react in disproportionate ways to minor student misbehaviors.  Because they do not  admit that they ever act in anger they do not reflect on what makes them angry or on better ways to   deal with their anger.  By not facing themselves they do two things: they continually blame others and external conditions as the causes of their problems; and they let their anger escalate mundane and unimportant interactions with others into serious problems. In effect, the poorer the teacher the more likely he is  to cause an increasing number of his own problems-- then make them worse by not admitting  his mistakes.

It must be noted at this point that beginning in the late elementary grades and accelerating through middle and high school, many students are engaged in goading inadequate teachers into overreacting. The subject students major in (i.e. learn the most about) is "school" --how the system works and how to game the system. Students  learn infinitely more about how to get their teachers to "lose it" than they do about any subject matter. Indeed, what students study and learn the most about during their thirteen year school experience are their teachers' weaknesses. Teachers  do not know their students  one-tenth as well as the students know their teachers. Students study them, know what bothers them and how to get them to stop teaching, overreact, go off on a tangent and never get back to the lesson at hand. In failing schools and classrooms  this "game" consumes almost all the class time; in most schools the degree to which the game is  played depends on the degree to which the teachers are facing themselves and  do not  fall victim to their lack of self understanding.

Effective teachers operate on an entirely different set of   assumptions. They understand that teaching will be a continuous process of problem solving and that the problems they must deal with will never completely disappear. They understand that the  problems teachers face are endemic to schools and are chronic conditions.  Effective teachers regard themselves as lifelong learners and students of teaching. They know they will make mistakes. When they  make mistakes they admit them and apologize. They seek feedback from others. Most of all, they recognize that a certain level of anxiety goes with the job and it will sometimes be  manifested as anger. When they feel or demonstrate anger they reflect on what it was that  made them angry and consider the best options available for dealing with their anger. The process of teachers facing themselves requires  a continual self examination of feelings and behaviors for the purpose of gaining a fuller self understanding. As teachers deepen their self understanding they are less and less  likely to demonstrate behaviors which are hurtful to themselves, their students and others.

I recently observed an example of   two different teachers responding to the very same student behavior from the very same student. This student asked an extremely discourteous, profane,  personal question of a  teacher who never engages in self reflection.  The teacher responded by angrily implementing the procedure for suspending him for  three-days--which is exactly what the student wanted. She never asked herself  what the student's motivation was, or why the student's intrusive profanity  infuriated her,  or  what value her angry response would be in deterring repetitions of the student's behavior. Earlier,  the same student had asked the very  same discourteous, profane, personal question of a teacher constantly engaged in the process of self reflection. This teacher's first thoughts were "I wonder what's bugging this kid?"  and "How might I help him?" Instead of demonstrating self-righteous anger she quickly  considered what strategy might get  this student to do some work.  Her response ("I'll help you in a minute.") was a non-sequitur and such a complete shock to the student that he returned to his seat.  Teachers who lack understanding respond to students as if it is their job to reward virtue and punish malfeasance. In effect, they operate as if they are part of the criminal justice system handing out sentences and paroles. Effective teachers, on the other hand, consider themselves educators with the clear goal of removing students' obstacles to learning and doing what it takes to get them down to work.

Teacher Talk

Many if not most of  the daily   interactions teachers have with students will inevitably cause some student responses which are silly, off task, even discourteous. These are the reactions of normal children and youth when placed into group situations. Children and youth do not know or examine the causes of their responses and behaviors. Most behave well  most of the time but others (who are perfectly normal) are motivated by the need for attention or the need to feign helplessness to get out of doing the work.  A few are motivated by a need to challenge the teacher for control of the class in order  to show off for their peers. This need is especially common during adolescence.

Teachers who perceive of their role narrowly,  as purveyors of subject matter and not teachers of both subject matter and children,  will not  feel any need to analyze the causes of students' off-task behavior. They will simply regard such behavior as things which should not be happening and which require various forms of punishment. This view of teaching will never lead them to analyze  their own reactions to the minor but constant annoyances which characterize every classroom. As a result, they will inevitably escalate  minor irritations and interruptions into real problems. The teachers who escalate are typically those who  assume that it is normal for children and youth to sit for five hours a day following directions and if they cannot,  they must be abnormal or  from dysfunctional  families.

Effective teachers do the reverse: they de-escalate¬† inconsequential events into positive behavior or into actions which can be dismissed.¬† The teachers who de-escalate are clearly aware of how they feel as they interact with students and consciously seek to manage their feelings of anxiety and anger. They also know that the school day requires students to make unnatural¬† responses involving low physical activity and that it is incumbent on teachers¬† to include more effective ways of dealing with the vibrant, highly emotional nature of student growth and development. Following incessant¬†¬† directions¬† while remaining seated all day causes anxiety in everyone; the students as well as¬† those trying to enforce compliance.†

Over fifty years ago Ned Flander's careful research found that 2/3 of what happens in classrooms is talk; that 2/3 of the time it is the teacher talking; and  that 2/3 of teacher talk is devoted to  giving directions.  He called this  phenomenon of incessant, directive teacher talk The Law of Two-Thirds. Flanders also found that the kinds of talk teachers rarely engage in  are 1) using  student's ideas, 2) using  student's feelings and 3) allowing for and recognizing unsolicited student ideas; that is, listening to student ideas that are not answers to teachers' questions but students'  self initiated understandings and reactions to the subject matter. 

In the last fifty five years I have had the opportunity to observe in over 5,000 classrooms and while I agree with Flander's initial findings in describing classrooms of the 1950's, it is increasingly clear to me that there has been a definite trend upward. I would now estimate that 3/4 of what happens in classrooms is talk; that 3/4 of that time it is the teacher talking and 3/4 of teacher talk is giving directions. Further, that  teachers use of students' ideas and feelings is now  so rare as to be almost non-existent. In the teacher education programs I have offered,  the most common attribute of teachers who fail is their inability to praise students for their ideas. (If  the teacher never creates an opportunity for   students to offer unsolicited ideas there will never be an  opportunity for the teacher to praise them.) It is typical  to observe in the classrooms of failure teachers  for hours  on end and never hear them praise any student  for anything the student has thought of.  Since ineffective teachers do not see a major objective of teaching to be motivating students to generate ideas and questions, few student initiated ideas are ever expressed.  As a result, ineffective teachers  can accurately claim they have little opportunity to incorporate any students' ideas and thinking  into their teaching.

It should be noted that giving direction involves  much more than explaining to an individual or a class what they should do in order to complete a particular assignment.  Giving directions includes repeating and clarifying  appropriate student behavior and classroom procedures.  In many classrooms the time devoted to such constant direction-giving far exceeds the time students spend actually dealing with subject matter. An even more pernicious attribute of  teaching by direction-giving  refers to the manner in which many teachers actually engage in instruction and in the presentation of content. Most teachers' explanations and "showing how"  are essentially a process of giving directions rather than fostering any form of thought. For example, a math teacher's talk  might be directing students  to solve a math problem by statements such as the following:  "first you multiply within the parenthesis, then outside the parenthesis, then  you divide by the denominator."  A science teacher might  direct his students to replicate an experiment by stating, "First you heat the  element to boiling, then add the sulfur,  weigh it, then record the result."

The examples of teachers who believe they are teaching when they are merely giving  directions are sufficiently numerous to support the generalization that most teachers  are not  conscious of the distinction  between giving directions and teaching. In effect, many teachers use the same form of teacher talk in explaining subject matter that they use in explaining the rules for going to the washroom.  Elsewhere, I have analyzed and described  this phenomenon as the "Pedagogy of Poverty" and explained why children and youth have  not been prepared to think, question and pursue independent learning.  Finally, it is not only teachers of upper grades or high school whose talk is primarily directive. The fact is that the most directive teacher talk occurs in kindergarten and the primary grades.

Overall, in-depth classroom observation leads to the inevitable conclusion that whether or not teachers believe they are engaged in managing or instructing, most of what happens in classrooms is teacher talk.  When we sum the teacher talk devoted to discipline, classroom management and a teaching method based on   giving directions and making assignments,  it is not hard to conclude that Flander's Law of Two Thirds might well have expanded into the Law of Three Quarters.

Recognizing  the quantity and nature of teacher talk helps us to understand why so many students are not happy campers and become increasingly jaded the longer they stay in school. They begin as creative five year olds who wanted to question and know everything. By the time they graduate from high school they have no questions and spend most of the day sitting quietly detached, bored, uninvolved, and focused primarily on interacting with their peers. The notion that independent  learners (or citizens, or job holders, or critical thinkers, or fully functioning adults)  can be created by thirteen years of practice in following directions is an erroneous assumption of such staggering proportions that it is difficult to explain why those who work in schools become more committed to it every year.

My hypothesis is that most teachers know better but their anxieties, fed by a fear of not being able to control students' behavior,  leads them to become constant direction givers. Another explanation for why teachers who might know better lapse into giving directions, making assignments and monitoring compliance is that they believe it is an infinitely easier work load  than real teaching. Real teaching requires the   teacher to think about  a dozen things at once:  constantly motivating students;  connecting the subject matter to their lives;  gathering  materials to provide hands-on instruction;  making multiple assignments to provide for different achievement levels; providing constant encouragement;  eliciting students' ideas; providing opportunities for students to learn from each other;  rewarding students who ask better questions; involving students in helping to plan how they will go about answering their questions;   evaluating students' progress on the basis of work samples; overcoming student obstacles developed in previous years (e.g. "I'm just not good at math."  "I don't like science."); pushing students to constantly consider what knowledge is of most worth--now and in future; and learning about students' lives outside of school so that their interests and activities can be connected to  their learning. There are easily another dozen functions performed by effective teachers--and all must be performed on a daily basis.

Real teaching is an extremely difficult, complex activity requiring great ability to multi-task. Recognizing what real teaching involves makes obvious why the overwhelming majority of teachers continue to  pretend that giving directions for completing the next assignment and monitoring compliance is "teaching", even if they know better.  Their undoing is that by substituting assignment-making for real teaching they create the very problems that prove to be too much for them.

Teaching is the only profession in which the needs of individual clients are expected to be  met by treating them simultaneously as a group.  We don't expect dentists, veterinarians,  accountants or social workers to deal with 30 clients at once.  Imagine 30 patients whose only common characteristic is their age, sitting  in the waiting room of a physician in general practice.  For him to do what teachers do he would have to  treat  the  whole waiting room at once. The  difficulty of teaching individuals in classes  causes the typical teacher to lapse into one assignment per class. (i.e. giving the same prescription to the whole waiting room.) Nevertheless, there are effective teachers in even the most dysfunctional schools whose students do  learn every day. These teachers can be used as models for preparing and coaching others. This analysis focuses on just one of their  major attributes-- the willingness to face themselves.

"All Children Can Learn" What We Say vs. What We Do

The issue of teacher expectations is clearly related to the generation of anxiety in schools. Teachers are constantly admonished to have high expectations. Most learn that it is politically correct to claim they believe "Every child can learn." But what does their behavior indicate they  really believe?

The nature of schooling is such that the variance of student achievement within a classroom is much greater than the average difference between classes of even different years.  For example, the difference between the average achievement of a student in a fourth grade class and the average achievement of a student in a fifth grade class in the same school is approximately one year. This is much less than the differences among students in the very same class. The achievement curves overlap so much that, in the nation as a whole, ten percent of students in first grade know more than ten percent of students in sixth grade.

In every class teachers have four kinds of students: those whose skills exceed what is needed to learn the required content¬† of that grade; some students with the skill levels needed to learn the content of that grade level; ¬†some students who lack the basic skills to learn the content the teacher of that grade is expected to teach; and a few students¬† who are outliers and merely observe rather than participate in the class.¬† The ¬†most constant refrain of teachers is "How am I supposed to teach literature to kids who can't read the books?" "How am I supposed to teach algebra to kids who can't multiply and divide fractions?" "How am I supposed to teach history to students who don't know the name of the county they live in? ¬†The high school teachers blame the lack of basic skills on the middle school teachers who blame the elementary school teachers who blame the kindergarten teachers who complain that the parents didn't provide the environment necessary to get their kids ready for schooling.†

Principals frequently direct their teachers to "cover" the grade level curriculum with all students regardless of their lack of basic skills. They justify this directive as "maintaining high expectations."  "Covering" the curriculum by giving the same assignment to the whole class regardless of skill levels ensures that students  unable to do the work will fall further behind. What happens next is the phenomenon Charles Payne dubbed the "deal" in his classic book, Getting What We Ask For. Essentially, "the deal"  is  an agreement between the students and the teacher that if the student does not disturb  others he will pass the course with a D-. The student is expected to do nothing but show up and not cause trouble. The "logic" of the deal is quintessential  teen-age reasoning: "If I never showed up I would get an F. I  'deserve' something for coming."  While Payne credits the Chicago schools of the 1980's as the origin of "the deal," it is now a national trend and can be found in urban, rural and even some suburban districts.  Indeed, the primary way that many school districts show they have decreased the dropout rate and  increased the graduation rate is by implementing "the deal." If  teachers really believe all students can learn what explains their widespread acceptance of "the deal?"

Admittedly, teaching classes of students who vary widely in basic skills is a tremendous challenge. It requires advanced skills and a high level of commitment on the part of teachers. The problem is that neither  preservice teacher education nor in-service professional development  prepares teachers to question their limited definition of teaching, i.e. giving the total class the same directions for completing the same assignment. Teachers know better than anyone that there is a tremendous discrepancy in the skill levels of their students. What this means in practice is that teachers know when they give their one-size fits-all assignments that some students will not be able to comply.

In effect teachers add to their anxiety because they know going into each period, every day of the school year, that their  expectations will lead some students to demonstrate passive aggression (i.e. just sit there) or overt aggression (engage in disturbing behavior) in response to assignments that are too easy or too difficult. Teachers not facing themselves therefore experience increased anxiety knowing at the start of any activity or period that there will be a lack of compliance or even resistance by some students. Unfortunately they deny (i.e. prevent themselves from admitting) that it is the nature of their teaching that is causing these student responses.  

The solution to this dilemma of having schools and teachers respond to student variation in achievement has never been implemented because it would require transformative changes at every level of education. Teacher educators would have to  know  and be skilled at how to  make multiple assignments for students with multiple ways of knowing in the particular subject areas of the curriculum--and very few education faculty have the experiential  knowledge base of how to do this kind of teaching.  Second, teachers in preparation programs would need field experiences with effective teachers who engage in multiple assignment making. Such classrooms are extremely rare and could not accommodate even a fraction  of the  500,000 students in teacher education. (One  dirty little secret of teacher education is that many teachers-to-be never even see, let alone practice with highly effective teachers who  meet students individual differences by making  multiple level assignments simultaneously.) Third, the existing 3.2 million public school teachers would have to discard The Pedagogy of Poverty in favor of real teaching and  the cultures of existing schools would have to radically change to support these new and better forms of instruction. Fourth, principals would have to be selected and trained who know more about teaching than they currently do. Who would train them? Under what conditions? Fifth, the public would need to change their concept of what teaching is? (How would that happen?)  Finally, it must be recognized that real teaching that would reach all the students in a classroom is not only extremely hard work but requires expensive support systems for highly trained, carefully selected teachers and mentors. Between 2009 and 2012 over 4.5 billion dollars will be spent by the federal government to improve failing schools that claim they are willing to participate in a "Race to the Top" initiative. It will be interesting to see if any these funds even dent  the dominant, widespread use of  The Pedagogy of Poverty.

Thus, although teachers may voice, indeed truly  believe  the shibboleth "all students can learn" common teacher behaviors obstruct that learning. Ineffective teachers unwilling to face themselves do not see the connection between   their pedagogy  and the anxieties and anger it generates in many of their  students--and in themselves as the students resist  complying.  In explaining their problem of teaching classes of students with varying skill levels they  inevitably admit that their typical instructional strategy is one of    giving one assignment at a time to the entire class.   They know that passing off directive, assignment-making as teaching does not meet individual differences and indeed contributes to the problems they  face in managing the classroom.  Sensitive  teachers understand the connection between an  instructional strategy that assumes all students are at the same achievement level and how such teacher behavior ensures student misbehavior.  Insensitive teachers do not want to see (resist seeing) any connection between their teaching and students' negative responses. It is only after students' make negative responses  that ineffective teachers admit there is a problem--and the problems they perceive  are with the students (their families, their culture) and  not their pedagogy. "Denial" is not the name of a river in Egypt.

Do Teacher Biases Raise Anxiety? What Is Selective Perception?

The elephant waiting in the hall now needs to be recognized and added to the mix.  Teachers unwilling to face themselves selectively perceive examples of student behaviors which support their prejudices. How do I know this is true? I have conducted and replicated a  research study eight times which demonstrates this finding.    

At the start of a field experience in the Milwaukee Public Schools we had  future teachers and experienced teachers write down what they expected to find regarding the students, the principal, the parents and the conditions of the school. We then evaluated their expectations by counting the number of their statements that were positive (+) or negative (-) expectations. At the end of eight weeks we asked the participants to describes what they had actually seen  in the schools regarding students, principals, parents and the conditions of work. The results at the conclusion of the experience were as follows: 1) those who  expected to see lots of student misbehavior reported seeing many examples of such behavior; 2) those who expected to see student behaviors that were positive reported seeing many positive examples; 3) those who expected to find negative attributes of principals, parents and the school conditions reported seeing many examples of such negative qualities; 4) those who expected to find generally good principals, parents and school conditions reported seeing many positive examples.

In sum, the participants did not "benefit" in the same way from their field work experience. The teachers saw what they were predisposed to see and interpreted their observations to support their existing belief systems. They merely used the experience to reinforce what they believed in the first place. Those who expected to find negative things found them. So too, did those beginning with positive expectations. These  studies demonstrate that we perceive in ways that support our pre-existing beliefs and reject "seeing" behaviors that would refute what we already believe. We selectively perceive and remember those people, events and conditions that will support and strengthen whatever we are predisposed to believe in the first place.

Two other critical findings came out of these studies.  First, the number of negative expectations held by teachers before they began any observations exceeded their positive expectations by five to one. We know this number of negative expectations reflects teacher beliefs regarding diverse students in poverty since teachers knew they were about to have field experiences in the Milwaukee schools. When asked to write  expectations regarding what they would find in predominantly white suburban schools their statements were overwhelmingly positive.

Second, the teacher's observations and perceptions did not reveal any knowledge whatever of how normal children or youth develop; if they saw behaviors or conditions they perceived as desirable they assumed them to be "normal." If they saw what they regarded to be  misbehaviors they perceived them as abnormal and  attributed them to the children's  ethnicity, parents or home lives. These studies replicated over several decades undergird my contention that most teachers do not know what normal development of children and youth looks like. Faced with behaviors they don't like they classify them as "abnormal" or  characteristic of a given minority group  thereby revealing deep seated prejudices regarding ethnicity and class. Such selective perceptions explains why as many as 25 per cent of minority students are labeled as "special need" students in urban schools.

Moreover, teachers seeing what they are predisposed to see interacts detrimentally with their lack of knowledge of what constitutes normal behavior during the various stages of human development. To take and pass all those education courses in child and adolescent development and then demonstrate no working knowledge of the wide range  of behavior that constitutes "normal" behavior  for children and youth is bad enough. But  to then perceive student behaviors generated by having to sit and listen to directions all day  as "misbehaviors" and  attribute those "misbehaviors"   to ethnicity and class is a fundamental cause of why diverse students in poverty don't learn as much as they can in school.

The reality of selective perception makes it critical that teachers  face themselves. As Americans we are taught stereotypes  in the process of  our early socialization.  Only those  in a constant process of self-analysis can hope to understand and overcome these stereotypes. Effective teachers' knowledge of growth and development enables them to understand that almost all of the negative behaviors perceived by teachers are actually typical of all children and youth at various stages of development. They are not the result of students' ethnicity or class, nor are they aberrant.

What Can Be Done?

Increased understanding of the causes of teacher anxiety inevitably leads us to the question of what can be done. Teachers need professional development that helps them to face themselves.  By  understanding  how their anxieties lead them to demonstrate anger they can stop the process of escalating irrelevant student annoyances into problems and minor student problems into suspensions and worse.  To facilitate such professional development I have collected hundreds of examples of teacher talk which escalate and de-escalate their interactions with students. This volume (Teacher Talk) groups teacher student interactions based on four  student motivations: the need for attention, the need to feign helplessness; the need for revenge; and the need for control. T           hose examples of  real teacher-student dialogues are accompanied by filmed examples of teachers demonstrating actual escalations and de-escalations with students.

The Escalation and De-escalation of Teachers' Problems with Students

Is there a connection between teacher anxiety  and the nature of teacher talk?  Do teachers cause  most of their own  problems by the manner in which they  talk to classes and to individual students? Do  teachers' responses to irritations, interruptions, annoyances, and non-compliance with directions escalate minor issues into major problems? Unfortunately, the answer to all three questions is 'yes.' In the following dialogue consider how  the teacher's talk has escalated the student's  responses.

( A sixth grade student† has her chair tipped back to the point of almost tipping over. Her feet are drawn up on the metal shelf underneath her seat. She is¬† precariously balanced.)

Teacher:† Put your feet on the floor.

Student: Why?

Teacher: Because I said so.

Student: (Looks around.) Mario has his feet up.

Teacher: I'm not talking to Mario.

Student: Why is it always me. You never tell anyone else to put their feet down.

Teacher: Because you always have your feet up.

Student: No I don't.

Teacher: Yes you do.

Student: No I don't

Teacher: Yes you do.

Student:† You're always picking on me. You never tell anyone else they're wrong. (Does not put her feet down.)

Teacher:† I'm going to give you one minute to put your feet down or you‚Äôre going to the office.

Student:† (Moves chair a little to keep her balance. Does not put her feet down.)

Teacher:† O.K. time's up.

Student:† I was putting my feet down but you didn‚Äôt give me a chance.

Teacher:† I've given you more chances than anyone in this classroom.

Student:†(Shrugs) So, I don't care.

Teacher:† Oh, you will care.

Student:† Why all the time is everything my fault?

Teacher:† Well, you know††there are 28 other students in this classroom who want to learn.

Student:† (Shrugs) I don't care.

Teacher: That's it! Pick you your books and go the office.

What has the teacher accomplished  as a result of  escalating this annoyance into a serious confrontation with the student? The student has clearly won. She met her need for attention by getting the teacher and the class to pay attention to her. She demonstrated she could get the teacher angry thus increasing her importance still further. She got the teacher off task and stopped the lesson. She demonstrated that the teacher really can't control her and make her conform since everyone knows that  sooner or later  she will be  sent back to the classroom.

Teachers willing to face themselves  would not get trapped by a student in need of attention into such an escalation.  If they did feel any anger over  this petty annoyance they would be aware of it and  would   de-escalate the student's challenge by  quietly talking to her out of earshot of the class. The self-aware teacher  would simply ask  the student to perform an errand or a classroom chore which   would require the  student to regain her balance, stand up and leave her desk. In this way  a sensitive teacher would  give the student the attention she needs without interrupting   the lesson.  As a result, nothing would have happened. The chair tipping is de-escalated into a non-event because the teacher understood herself well enough to not demonstrate anger and because she recognized the student's motivation as a need for attention.

Five years have passed.  Consider the following episode in which high school juniors motivated by peer pressure as well as a need to assert their independence and power are clearly quite skillful at controlling a  teacher unwilling to face herself.

(The class is conducting an end-of the year review in preparation for taking the final exam.)

Teacher:† You guys need to listen. I already know the answers to the final, so I am not doing this for me.

Student 1:† Can't you just tell us the answers. That way we can just go through them.

Teacher:† No. That's now how it works, but what I can do is give you the information that you need to know to figure¬† out the answers for yourself. ¬†

Student 2: Mrs. Jones, I'm not going to lie. I really don't care about this final because this is my least favorite class.

Teacher:† Well, you are my least favorite student so that does not surprise me.

Class:† Whoa!!!!

Teacher:† O.K. calm down. We need to get through this because if we don't we will not be ready for the final.

Student 3: †Isn't like your job to teach us? If we are not ready it's not our fault, it's yours.

Student 4:† Yeah. You should let us use our notes for the final.

Teacher:† Okay, enough. If you guys don't want to do anything, then¬† I can't make you! Those of you who want to study please move to this side of the room. Those of you who don't care, just leave.¬† Go home. Sit on your couch where it is a lot more comfortable. We don't want you here anyway.

Student 1:† So we can just leave?

Teacher:† I'm sorry. I am no longer engaging in your idiotic conversation. I will be working with the students who want to learn.

Student 1: Okay. See you guys later. (Student leaves room.)

What has happened here is that a teacher unaware of her anxiety and the anger it generates in her engages in a power struggle with a student in front of his peers. This teacher never asks herself what the student's motivation  is nor questions her own behavior that escalates this power struggle in front of the class.  This teacher's behavior is in no way atypical.  She is buying into the mantra of many high school teachers, i.e. "I can help those who want to learn. I can't do anything to teach kids who don't want to learn." This particular episode comes from a white, suburban school. When this dialogue occurs with students of color, and in various forms it occurs regularly across America, the teacher is very likely to attribute the student's  "misbehavior"  to his ethnicity or to her belief that he is somehow abnormal.     

Effective teachers facing themselves know that this is the behavior of a normal adolescent who is proving to his friends that he is more powerful than his teacher. After all, he not only stopped the lesson, he proved that the teacher could not make him comply. He also forced the teacher into a spur-of-the-moment pedagogy which reflects her belief that some children do not want to learn. (She divided the class into two groups of "those who want to  learn and those who don't.") Because she was angry and flustered he got her public permission to simply  leave the room, which is clearly against the rules of the high school.  In effect, this student got the teacher to publicly admit that she didn't know what to do when a student questions  her directions.  The result of teachers not facing themselves is that they cannot teach normal students  going through a normal stage of growth and development. Further, if this were a student of color the teacher would not only define his behavior as aberrant but attribute it to his ethnicity and/or class.

Next Steps

Thus far we've discussed a variety of external and internal factors that cause teacher anxiety. External  pressures come from administrators, from constant student testing, from the public,  and  from the need to teach large groups of students with  wide ranging achievement levels. Anxiety  caused by  teachers themselves compounds the problem still further: a pedagogy characterized by constant talk, incessant direction giving and assignment making that doesn't recognize individual differences. These external and internal causes push teachers' anxiety to levels that explain why half of the beginning teachers quit or leave in five years or less. (In urban districts half are gone within three years.) The research on burnout indicates that for even for the most effective teachers in urban schools, burnout starts as early as the fourth year and affects them all to some degree. For teachers in all schools the average "career" length  is now down to less than eleven years. Clearly, there are other causes for teachers (who are predominantly women engaged in child rearing) to leave, but these decreases in length and quality of service are also attributable to  the anxieties which have come to increasingly characterize teaching.

Teachers'  beliefs and values also keep the cauldron of teacher anxieties constantly stirring.  The 3.2 million public school teachers represent the diversity of values found in the general American public. Teachers do not share a common value system that  distinguishes them from  society at large. For example,  corporal punishment is legal in twenty two states. There are teachers on both sides of the issue: some see it as child abuse while others see it as a viable, educative practice. Just as in the general public, there are teachers on both sides of such issues  as: Should pregnant students be allowed to graduate? Should intelligent design as well as evolution be included in the curriculum?  Should the school library be able to ban books circulated in the public library? Should students with special needs be mainstreamed? The teaching force not only represents the public 's views of debatable issues, it also represents the public in  terms of their personal qualities, values and predispositions. The teaching force, just as the general public, includes individuals who do and  do not understand their own  biases and prejudices. The  teaching force, just as the general public, includes individuals who are highly creative, critical thinkers and others who avoid  thinking about anything. The teaching force also includes  teachers with the range of emotional problems found in the population at large.

This variability among teachers must be understood as a starting point in any effort to help teachers face themselves. Getting teachers to face themselves is not a panacea.  Some  will be able to develop new ways of interacting with students. Others, for a variety of reasons including selective perception,  will not be able grow and develop new perspectives on their role and behaviors as teachers. Nevertheless, efforts to  help  teachers  reach new levels of self-understanding and channel their anger in ways that stop escalating problems for themselves and their students is always worth the effort. Improving the effectiveness of just one teacher affects all the students with whom that teacher  interacts for all the years he remains in teaching. The slogan "every kid in America deserves a good teacher" means much more than a teacher who knows the subject matter. Teachers' knowledge is a necessary but  not sufficient condition. By relating positively to students  effective teachers gain access to students' on both a cognitive and emotional level. Positive relationships with youngsters in the throes of development inevitably require teachers facing themselves.


Flanders, N.(1970) Analyzing Teacher Behavior. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Haberman, M. (1991) The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching. KAPPAN, 73(4) pp.290-294 December.

Haberman, M.(2005) Star Teachers of Children in Poverty. Houston: Haberman Educational Foundation.

Payne, C.M.(1984) Getting What We Ask For. Westport,CT: Greenwood Press.


August 23rd, 2009

Martin Haberman

Columnist and Board Advisor EducationNews.org

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