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Julia Steiny: Teachers’ Angry Comments Can Stop Education In Its Tracks
Julia Steiny analyzes the work of Dr. Martin Haberman, pioneer of the ‘Star Teacher Interview,’ on teacher attitudes — and hurtful words — toward students.
At the end of Dr. Martin Haberman’s most recent monograph on teaching is a collection of ugly comments made to actual students. He introduces them: “One of the questions which the (teacher-preparation) trainees are asked in the course of their training is the following: ‘Looking back on your own K-12 schooling, has any teacher ever said anything to you that hurt your feelings and that you remember till this day?’ We have never had a single educator who could not remember one or more of these hurtful comments.”
Thereafter follow two dense pages of these cringe-worthy quotes, selected from among the thousands of educators trained by the Haberman Educational Foundation.
“You’ll waste your money in college.”
“You’re not as smart as your sisters.”
“You’ll never amount to much.”
The comments are variations of the abuse secretly videotaped by a special-needs child that went viral recently.
The one I most remember was a teacher in a crowded hallway braying to a seriously overweight, misbehaving teen, “With breasts like that, how can you call yourself a boy?”
Under the right circumstances, such statements will kill a kid’s education then and there.
What’s the difference between the teachers who make such comments and those who wouldn’t dream of it?
Dr. Haberman’s answer: teacher beliefs.
For example, do teachers really believe “All children can learn,” as asserted by district and state websites?
Or do some educators believe, as Haberman puts it, “I can help those who want to learn. I can’t do anything to teach kids who don’t want to learn.”
Some teachers believe kids who “don’t want to learn” need a well-deserved “dose of reality.” Other teachers don’t question their right — even obligation — to fight back when they feel attacked. In any case, such beliefs justify making devastating comments.
From the 1960s, the beginning of his long and distinguished career, Dr. Haberman’s good instincts – and research – zeroed his work in on teacher beliefs as the foundation of teacher effectiveness. He invented the “Star Teacher Interview” that probes the beliefs of would-be teachers on several dimensions, including persisting with tough kids. Research has found the Interview highly predictive of effective teachers. Hundreds of school districts and universities use it faithfully.
The recently published 62-page monograph is aptly named “When Teachers Face Themselves.” It looks through the interesting lens of research about teachers’ relationships to themselves, specifically their beliefs, feelings, and tendency toward defensive reactions.
Bear in mind that all defensive people have gettable goats. They ignite into anger easily and feel victimized. Without thinking, they fight back. Kids LOVE to get adults’ goats.
Haberman states, “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.”
While some schools have reached a counter-productive level of stress, Haberman notes, “A reasonable amount of anxiety is helpful for teaching and learning anything.”
However, “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.”
And there you have a retributive cycle that will inevitably undermine learning.
Haberman identifies the four goals of disruptive students: “to get attention, to exert power, to inflict revenge, or to not participate by displaying inadequacy,” aka “feigned helplessness.” Obviously, some students have more than one goal.
So the ability to deal with kids’ provoking behavior involves a combination of teachers’ beliefs – “I know I can reach this kid eventually” – and some classroom management techniques. Haberman is big on asking the kid disarming questions.
“Could it be that you want special attention?” “Could it be that you want to hurt others as much as you feel hurt by them?”
Indeed the monograph mainly consists of illustrative dialogues between rude students and teachers who either escalate the tension or don’t. The dialogues show why problematic reactions to students only make the situation worse. Other dialogues show educators how to de-escalate those same insulting or disruptive situations, without adding their own anger’s fuel to the fire.
Clearly, retributive or insensitive habits must be confronted, broken and re-learned.
If educators don’t face their beliefs and reactions, “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 appears. … As teachers deepen their self understanding they are less and less likely to demonstrate behaviors which are hurtful to themselves, their students and others.”
Educators, like anyone, have a right to their feelings, whatever they are. But indulging in making negative comments can wreck the potential of precisely the students we most want to reach. We all hate facing ourselves and our flaws. Still, this powerfully destructive adult habit must stop.
As I was drafting this column, Dr. Haberman died. Such a loss. I will continue to learn from him through his work. Still, new expressions of his commonsensical, practical attitude toward teaching will be sorely missed. May he rest in peace.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.
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