Christopher Mahon: To Help Teachers, Adults Need to Influence Kids

by Christopher Mahon

The discussion in America about the problems in education needs to shift a little bit from the performance of teachers to the behavior of students. I've been teaching in a public high school for nine years. It's been the most rewarding and challenging work I've ever done. I've taught incredibly polite and highly motivated students, and I've taught incredibly disrespectful students. And when you have a few disrespectful students, they can destroy the fabric of a whole class.

I used to blame myself and feel guilty if I was not effective with some students or even some classes with too many ill-behaved students. But then I came across the work of Gabor Maté, a Canadian physician who has written the best-selling book Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do About It. He explained to me what I am sometimes truly up against.

I never really used to believe in Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). I thought it was a label psychologists put on behavior patterns they really couldn't understand or explain, behavior patterns that had to do more with a hyper-kinetic society than the functioning of a brain. But Dr. Maté‘s book detailed it for me. Here's his argument in a nutshell:

The behavior of so many young people in society — behavior marked by lack of impulse control, hyperactivity, and inability to focus attention (the classic signs of ADD) — is a reaction to the collapse of a network of nurturing adults. Not just Mom and Dad, but a whole network of nurturing adults: adults who are not stressed in their own lives and who are emotionally available.

Kids have to attach themselves to something, and if they are not significantly enough attached to a healthy adult world, they attach themselves to another world, a world filled with other kids (other immature kids, that is), technology (cell phones, video games, YouTube), and a music and media culture that is often profane and vulgar.

As a physician, Maté makes another important point: the healthy development of the human brain depends on the proper social environment, an environment marked by a network of nurturing adults. In particular, he writes about the healthy development of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain related to impulse control, hyperactivity, and focused attention. If the social environment isn't healthy, the brain won't be healthy. When I read Maté, I finally understood what all those articles about brain scans that proved the existence of ADD actually meant.

So, this is what teachers face when they face a problem class of forty-plus students. They are facing the cumulative influence of many immature kids; the cumulative influence of a fast-paced, superficial technological society; and they are facing the cumulative influence of a media and music culture that is often profane and vulgar. They are facing a group of kids who are not living with enough healthy adult influences in their lives.

We still have many wonderful kids with wonderful adult influences who are very well-behaved. For many classes with these kids, one teacher can be enough to work effectively with the students. But for a significant number of other classes, one teacher is simply not enough to combat the forces that have created this societal problem.

This is the main flaw in the arguments of many current educational reformers. They have recognized some truly outstanding teachers who have managed to become the single most important influence in the classroom — greater than the absence of other adults, greater than the influence of other immature kids, greater than the influence of media and technology. And these reformers think that the solution to our educational woes is to get all the other teachers to teach like them.

These teachers are truly great, and I have met some of them, but they have a gift that cannot be taught. Their power is a combination of their charisma (however quiet or dramatic, however stern or entertaining) and their excellent teaching strategies. You can learn excellent teaching strategies. You can't learn how to be charismatic.

You would not need every teacher to be great if we had respectful students. If all students in the country were truly respectful, even just "good" teachers would produce outstanding results — or, at least, outstanding results by today's standards. To produce outstanding results, you need a society and a generation of students who truly respect education.

In fact, I'd say a society that truly respects education is great. And a great society is one that has plenty of room for the good. A great society is one where good teachers thrive and prosper, and in which their students thrive and prosper along with them. We live in a society where many good teachers leave the profession because their goodness is not respected.

I am not saying that all teachers should not continually strive to improve their performance. I am not saying that all teachers cannot learn important teaching strategies and practices from their outstanding colleagues. I am saying that those things alone will not solve the problem. In fact, they will not address the root of the problem.

To the extent that disrespectful behavior is caused by the absence of healthy adult influences, we need to increase the adult influences in the lives of young people — especially at school, with more campus aides, deans, and security personnel. To the extent that the behavior is caused by a fast-paced, high-technological society, we need to re-think our reliance on technology and question the benefits we really receive. And to the extent that the lives of some young people are saturated by a profane and vulgar media and music culture, we need to wonder how much we, as adults, support that culture.

We as a society need to think hard about the behavior of so many young people our culture has produced. About the lack of impulse control. About the inability to sit still. About the inability to focus attention for sustained periods of time. About the absolute disrespect some (too many) students show towards teachers who work so hard to educate them.

And then we need to ask ourselves: What is really wrong with our schools? Is it the teachers? Is it the students? Or is it our culture?

Christopher Mahon is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and teaches high school English in southern California.

Christopher Mahon

Christopher Mahon

Christopher Mahon

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