October 3rd, 2010

The Young Human Blues? The Call for a Teacher Hippocratic Oath

On Monday mornings, does your child awaken eagerly anticipating school?

It’s a simple question. Yet, the answer has powerful consequences. Your child’s attitude towards school affects your entire family–one “bad” school year can poison family peace for years to come. Ask any parent who has trouble getting their child out of bed—it is a repetitive and hellish battle.

This “I-Want-to-Stay-in-Bed-Itis” can turn into a dis-ease that needs monitoring like any high fever.  If it continues without treatment, it can psychologically scar your child beyond adolescence. The most common causes can be sorted roughly into three categories: teacher/student, peer, and child/parent relationships.  I will be addressing only the first today. Too often, there is an unspoken but real mental battle between the teacher and student. The child may not be able to verbalize it, but it can work something like this:

“My teacher really doesn’t get me. She is judging me by a skill I don’t have or a personality trait I do. I try to do the work as best I can—I really try to pay attention—even when she is boring.  But sometimes my mind slips somewhere else, and she calls on me and…I don’t feel worthwhile. I feel like a loser. I don’t always get what she is trying to teach—even though it’s probably simple for others.  It is hard to feel like the good person I really am.  After all, my teacher is a smart adult, and if she doesn’t think I am good enough—maybe I am a bad and stupid person.  And, if I am bad and stupid, that puts me in a bad mood.  I don’t want to keep going to school to repeat that failing feeling—not just as a student, but as a person as well.”

Imagine if you had to survive your work in that mental state each day!

Here’s a question I’ve asked hundreds of adults: how many teachers do you remember dearly—teachers that had a strong influence on you? Most people answer only three or four. If you have been through college, you have had approximately 150 teachers since kindergarten.  So, the truly memorable ones are a mere three percent at best.

What made those teachers so special? There are many reasons, but there seems to be a common denominator.  Bottom line: at a deep level, you knew that teacher was “pulling” for you–believed in you even if you didn’t.

Most every child knows if their teacher(s) really care for them or not.   Consciously or unconsciously, they just know.  Sadly, they may not be able to express their conviction in words, or defend their convictions logically.  That’s why it’s necessary for the adult to “discover” the child’s feelings by deciphering what their body language, comments, and actions mean.

In twenty years of teaching, I have never met a teacher who deliberately made a child feel bad.  Why, then, does it happen so often?

Sometimes, teachers, being human, let their personal belief systems cloud their ability to see and understand differing beliefs.  For example, imagine you are a neat, even fastidious, person who highly values your appearance.  And, every day, “Sloppy Joe” walks into your class with shirt out and jeans torn.  What are you to think?  Actually, there are many choices.  Perhaps, this child is poor or without a mother.  So, instead of judging, you would naturally regard this student with patience and compassion.

What about more subtle beliefs?  The ill effects of a teacher’s unexamined, unconscious belief system can be devastating to students.  Fortunately, I have done my best teaching with students that I had little, or no, immediate rapport. It is easy teaching and being with kids you like.  I needed to check myself to make sure I didn’t judge students who exhibited behaviors I didn’t appreciate.  For instance, take a student I perceive is self-indulgent. In my mind, whether accurate or not, that child is being analyzed, judged, and executed in a mere second. And, it will take numerous counter examples for me to change my mind if I remain unaware.  These snap, unexamined judgments are often written as gospel on a child’s permanent record—the ones that follow him until high school graduation. And it just may be a projection by an adult with a different background.

Perhaps, there should be a Teacher Hippocratic Oath.  It would go something like this:

“As a teacher of young ones, I have the sacred duty to treat each child with loving kindness and the utmost respect–since we are equal at the highest of levels. My greater experience and knowledge is only temporary. May I not simplistically label this child.  And may I be wise enough to do what’s in this child’s best interests.”

This is a crucial issue.  This is an issue where, literally, millions of fledgling imaginations are ever so gently bent, inadvertently broken and eventually mutilated. It happened to me. At 12 years of age. I believed Mr. Meltzer’s (my seven grade English teacher) analysis of my poetry.  I bought his theory for the next twenty years hating any writing assignment. Then, I found myself almost-magically writing for a living.

This vital skill of teacher self-reflection is rarely, if ever, taught to prospective teachers in college. Would-be teachers are trained to reflect on the success of individual lessons.  Being taught to effectively reflect on their relationships with their students is at least as important.  If it exists, it is far too scarce of a commodity.

As the brilliant educator, Parker Palmer, understood: number one, you teach who you are, and everything else is second.

And so, in this era of teacher evaluation–just like so many standards, measurements, and inspections in school, we are trying to measure all the wrong things.  Will you, your child, and your entire family be the next ones to pay for this lack of consciousness?

Mark Gordon is founder of Kinesthetic Academics—learning academic skills through movement (in half the normal time, he can teach nearly anyone how to write a clear, five-paragraph essay by playing ball).  He has been Executive Director of an innovative learning lab, The AHA Center. His book, If Einstein Ran Our Schools, will be published next spring.

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From the Teachers