We're still not preparing teachers for what they too often end up facing in the classroom - How to do that better
HOW TEACHERS ARE ILL PREPARED
Anyone who has spent time in a school knows that teachers are typically over prepared academically for what they end up teaching students in their classes. They take much, much higher level courses than they will ever need. However, they are sent into classrooms ill prepared in two important ways.
1) They are ill prepared to understand, let alone deal with the many psycho-emotional-social issues and problems their students often have that give rise to the many behavioral challenges students present them with, and that they don’t like and that get in the way of learning
2) They are ill prepared to manage their own mental, emotional and even behavioral responses to such challenges. It’s why so many leave the profession in the first five years, so many others are stressed out and even suffer health wise, make mistakes with students, and can’t wait to retire.
A DYSFUNCTIONAL AMOUNT OF EMOTION
Teachers too often generate more emotion than is necessary or helpful. That’s what I call a dysfunctional amount of emotion. They too often needlessly stress themselves out without realizing it. That makes what students do, or don’t do, bigger threats to them than such things are or should be. This makes teachers more likely to get angry needlessly in self-defense, to react or even overreact, and to make mistakes with students because they do. That’s especially true with the most troubled and troublesome ones we can least afford to make mistakes with. The fact that they typically but wrongly see students as the cause of their angst or anger and blame them for it only makes things worse.
GETTING STUDENTS “TO BEHAVE”
They too often focus simply on getting kids to “behave”, more often than not resorting to punitive discipline to do so. That’s in part because they are unprepared to help kids work through the many internal struggles that give rise to behavior teachers don’t like. But it’s also in part because most teachers simply fall back on authoritarian approaches that were taken by their own parents with them. Even if they don’t have an authoritarian mindset to begin with, it’s easy to acquiesce to such discipline approaches embedded in the schools they get hired by. Such approaches rarely make kids better, and often just make them worse. Too often, they even contribute to the “school to prison” pipeline we so often hear about.
TRADITIONAL TEACHER PREPARATION
The way we prepare teachers really has never changed for as long as I’ve been one (forty years), and I don’t see any evidence that it will. In fact, I’ve seen evidence of the exact opposite – that there’s been a doubling down on the traditional way. One of the assumptions teacher preparation has always been based on is that the more teachers know about their subject matter, the better teachers they will make. There’s some truth to that, but there’s so much more to teaching at the lower levels. At the college level, that premise reigns supreme, and in many ways makes sense. So it’s no wonder that teachers often end up struggling through all kinds of higher level classes, taught by top professors in their fields, learning all kinds of things they never will end up teaching when they go back to elementary, middle or high schools classrooms. The problem is not learning too much. It's that there’s very little if any time devoted to teaching them how to deal with, and help students deal with, the common and important psycho-emotional-social issues that so often undermine student readiness, willingness and ability to learn, or our ability to teach them.
GOING IN THE WRONG DIRECTION
I taught graduate classes for teachers for two years after retiring from the classroom. They were based on something I call the Mental and Emotional Tool Kit for Life. One was called “A Tool Kit for Teachers”, another “Troubleshooting with Troubled Students”. A third was “Mental and Emotional Vaccination” – in other words mentally and emotionally vaccinating students against mental health, health, social, behavioral, and even academic problems. A fourth was “Mental and Emotional Karate”, a way for teachers to teach potential targets of bullying to truly defend themselves against it.
However, all of a sudden, we weren’t getting anyone signing up
for these classes, even though they had been highly popular with teachers in the past. Our consortium had to cancel one after another. We soon found out that districts all had decided to stop approving, reimbursing for, or giving credit for classes unless
they were in a teacher’s SUBJECT matter area. They went in exactly the opposite direction that they should have. Teachers don’t need to know more about their subject matter. They need to learn more about how to best deal with, and help their
students who are struggling in some way that gets in the way of their own learning, and sometimes the learning of others.
CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT IS NOT THE BEST ANSWER
I don’t see anything changing any time soon. In fact, I expect teacher preparation to get even more stringent regardless academic preparation. Adding content tests to the credentialing process is a perfect example. It’s like saying we don’t trust those grades teachers worked so hard to get in college.
“Classroom management” will probably become a bigger focus of teacher preparation because behavioral challenges are becoming such a big concern in schools all across the country. They are some effective strategies that can give teachers greater seeming control over classrooms. However, in the end teachers never really do control students, and in many ways trying to too much is a set up for more of the very behavior teachers don’t like, especially in the most troubled and troublesome students in any school. The reason being that none of these strategies address the underlying causes of behavior teachers don’t like, and too often can interface with those causes in ways that just make matter worse.
TREAT BEHAVIOR AS A SYMPTOM
I always encourage teachers to see behavior they don’t like as a symptom rather than as a problem. It’s a symptom of dysfunctional thoughts and feelings students have about themselves, others, life and what has or is happening to them. In that sense, the largely punitive approach teachers and schools so often take will at best only give symptomatic relief. In this way, behavioral management (or at least what schools typically do) is much like OTC medications for the symptoms of a cold. They might give temporary relief from behaviors teachers don’t like. However, that behavior often returns, sometimes even with a vengeance literally and figuratively once the consequence is over, if not before. It rarely addresses the underlying cause of behavior teachers don’t like – it rarely affects in any positive way students’ thoughts and feelings about themselves, others, life and what has or is happening to them.
IMPROVING TEACHER PREPARATION – STEP 1
The first thing I would urge those preparing new teachers to do is teach them how to better manage what goes on inside their own heads in response to what students might do in their classrooms. This is important not only for teacher mental health, but also for effectiveness. Teachers have to be in the right mental and emotional place to be as effective as possible with students, especially the most troubled and troublesome ones. It’s what Dr. Robert Marzano calls having “emotional objectivity”.
I’d teach them about the important role emotion can and often does play in everyday life, in particular for teachers. How too much emotion causes anyone to react instead of respond to life events – how it makes them less response-able, or able to respond in the best possible ways. That it can make otherwise smart people start and continue to do stupid and self-defeating things. Then I would teach them how to keep their stress down, not just manage it. That will go a long way in helping them avoid getting angry and making mistakes with students. Anger is the number one enemy of effectiveness for teachers.
STRESS AND ANGER PREVENTION
I believe in stress and anger prevention instead of stress or anger management. When people are stressed out, it typically means they’re generating a dysfunctional amount of anxiety. Anxiety if a figment of imagination – it’s about things that could happen, but haven’t yet, and often never do. Anticipating threats before they happen is important to survival. But sometimes this process can work against people. It’s why we say people sometimes have anxiety disorders. People can literally plug them into their fight or flight responses.
The other emotional half of fight or flight is anger. The problem with anger is that it’s emotional nitroglycerin. That’s the way nature intended it to be to deal with real threats to peoples’ lives. Emotion is energy to move and if their lives were really threatened, they’d want as much energy to move as possible, and to react as quickly as possible. Hesitating could be a matter of life or death. The problem is that people can, and often do needlessly plug into their fight or flight responses simply because of the way they choose to look at things before, while and after they happen. Teachers do this too often with student behavior.
A perfect metaphor for anger is the comic book character The Incredible Hulk. Dr. David Banner is a smart, mild mannered scientist. In that way, he’s like most teachers. However, when he “hulks out”, it’s “smash time”, and he ends up doing things he otherwise would never do, and regretting it greatly afterward. Not to mention that a lot of people are angry at the Hulk. I like to say that anger can make an otherwise smart, well-trained and experienced teacher say and do stupid things. YouTube is loaded with student cell videos of teachers doing just that. The only solution is to not “hulk out” in the first place. Another way to look at it is that old saying about “closing the barn door after the horse is already out”. Once someone gets angry, it’s too late. In addition, anger gives anyone a false sense of power, righteousness, permission and protection. This precludes teachers from seeing the “error of their ways” with students while they’re angry.
GETTING BETTER VS. FEELING BETTER
There’s a difference between FEELING better and GETTING better. There are many ways to temporarily FEEL better. Some are healthy, like yoga, meditation, and exercise. Others are not, like smoking, drinking, using drugs. They all work in two basic ways. One, they give people a temporary break, time out or vacation from the real or imagined events of their lives, and the thoughts that go with them. Anxiety (a.k.a. stress) is a figment of imagination. It’s about things that could happen, but haven’t happened yet. However, it’s still the thoughts people have before life events that really causes anxiety, or any other feeling – not the real or imagined events. Two, they deplete the energy to move that has built up. Exercise does both, and it’s why it’s so often suggested as a helpful way to manage stress.
The catch is that once people stop engaging in such activities, or sober up, the events of their lives are more often than not waiting for them – if only in their imaginations. Their thoughts about those events quickly return, and their feelings build start to build back up. In this way, the many ways of FEELING better are like OTC medications for the symptoms of a cold. As long as OTC medications are in peoples’ blood or tissues, they give relief from symptoms. But once they leave, the symptoms return because the OTC meds did nothing about the cause of the symptoms – a virus infecting tissues. In the same way, ways of FEELING better typically do nothing about the real cause of feelings – what people THINK about their real or imagined events. GETTING better means permanently reducing the frequency, intensity and duration of anxiety or other troublesome emotions. The only way to GET better is for people to change the way they THINK. Stress management typically involves temporarily FEELING better. I believe in teaching teachers how to GET better.
Here are some “tools” I believe we can and should give them:
A THINK-FEEL-DO THERMOSTAT MODEL
It helps them see where they are emotionally and behaviorally at any given moment, and why they’re there cognitively. It shows them where they might want to be instead, and what it will take cognitively to get there.
You can read more about the THINK-FEEL-DO thermostat, see an example of it, and learn how to construct one for yourself at another article on this site:
UNCONDITIONAL SELF-ACCEPTANCE (USA)
The reason this is important is shame. Shame comes from believing you don’t live up to expectations. Teachers have all kinds of expectation placed on them, and place even more on themselves. Those expectations seem to be increasing all the time – often unrealistically so. That means plenty of opportunities to feel shame.
If teachers believe they haven’t lived up to expectations in the past, it’s easier to imagine they won’t again in the future, and to generate anxiety because of it. The everyday events of a classroom can start to seem like bigger threats than they are or need to be. Teachers can start to dread work in this way. It’s why so many leave the profession in the first five years. But they can also start to lash out at students whose behavior they start to see more and more as a threat to them.
The solution is USA. USA basically means that you choose to see whatever you think, feel, say or do as being understandable given that you’re human, fallible and what you have been through so far in your life. It also means you’ll never be the first or last person to think, feel, say or do something, including make mistakes with students.
You can read more about USA at: www.teacheresp.com/TeacherTool2.html
UNCONDITIONAL OTHER ACCEPTANCE (UOA) FOR STUDENTS
This simply means choosing to see what they think, feel, say or do as also being understandable given that they are human, and kids on top of it, and what they have been through in their lives. That doesn’t mean you have to like, agree with or even tolerate what they do. It just helps temper your emotional response to it by choosing to look at things this way.
AN INTERNAL LOCUS OF CONTROL
Most people, including most teachers, have an external locus of control. They wrongly believe that what others say and do, and what happens, causes how they feel. This needlessly puts them at the mercy of others and events in their lives. That usually means they’ll end up feeling worse than necessary or helpful, for longer than necessary. More importantly, it causes them to miss many opportunities to feel better.
The good news is that it’s actually what people choose to think about what happens and what others say and do that really determines how they feel. People always have a host of cognitive choices that they make all the time, usually without realizing they do. The way they make these choices really determines how they feel, not what happens or what others say and do. These choices are the real power and control people have over how they feel. Teachers can learn to use these choices to make themselves feel better.
You can read more about developing an internal locus of control at:
RECOGNIZING IRRATIONAL THINKING
I like teaching people Dr. Albert Ellis’ model for irrational thinking. He said that when people make themselves feel worse than is necessary or helpful, and do irrational things, they engage in four basic types of irrational thinking: DEMANDINESS, AWFULIZING, CAN’T STAND IT-ITIS, LABELING AND DAMNING.
Teachers often start to DEMAND obedience instead of inviting or requesting cooperation. That sets them up to find more to get upset about with students, and to get more upset than is helpful or necessary.
Lots of things students do are unpleasant, inconvenient or even uncomfortable. The mistake teachers make is the same one other people do – to start to tell themselves that what students do is AWFUL.
We all have a right to like or dislike whatever we want to. Teachers have a right to dislike what students do. The mistake they make is to tell themselves they CAN’T STAND what students do. Doing this in their minds needlessly inflames teachers. It’s why it’s called CAN’T STAND IT-ITIS.
Finally, rather than simply dislike student behavior, teachers sometimes LABEL AND DAMN the student, either privately or sometimes even publicly. They condemn the doer instead of the deed. They over generalize about a student as a person based simply on a behavior. For example, “That kid’s a brat”.
You can read more about these four types of irrational thinking at:
CORRECTING IRRATIONAL THINKING
Remember that the only way to GET better, and permanently reduce the frequency, intensity and duration of any troublesome emotion is for people to change the way they think. It’s called cognitive restructuring. There is a host of simple ways to approach correcting irrational thinking.
One broad approach is to apply the Scientific Method to our thoughts and comments. Every though teachers have, or comment they make is really their personal theory or hypothesis about the way life in their classrooms and students are or should be. Doe the evidence of everyday life, or the past support these theories and hypotheses, or refute them? Does it suggest better ones? The closer teachers’ theories and hypotheses match reality, the better mental health they’ll enjoy – the less emotion they’ll generate needlessly, and the less mistakes they’ll make with students. For example, thinking “They can’t do that in my classroom” will cause teachers to get more upset than “Kids can do whatever they want to”, if or when students do things a teacher doesn’t like. So will saying “I can’t stand when kids do that” instead of “I don’t like when kids do that”.
Another simple strategy is to simply ask “Is that a fact or just an opinion?” When teachers (or anyone) get upset needlessly, it’s more often than not because they think in terms of opinions instead of facts. For example, “They can’t do that in my class” is an opinion. “Kids can do whatever they want” is a fact.
Teachers can also be taught simple questions they can ask themselves and each other to help challenge irrational thinking. For example, if a teachers says “They can’t do that in my class”, the questions would be:
“Why can’t they?”
“They can’t, or you just don’t want them to?”
“They can’t, or you just don’t like when they do”
The only correct answers to such questions are:
“They can, I just don’t want them to. They can, I just don’t like when they do”
If teachers practice asking themselves and each other such questions, doing so becomes automatic. Then these questions act in their minds like grammar check does on a computer. This keeps them from turning their THINK thermostats up, and helps them turn them down should they suddenly go up.
You can read more about correcting irrational thinking at:
These last five tools are the most important in helping teachers learn to keep their emotional thermostats turned down, and to turn them down quickly should they go up.
STARTING WHAT THEY SAY WITH “PLEASE” OR “I”
As noted above, teachers too often DEMAND obedience instead of inviting cooperation. They have a right to want cooperation from students, but they too often turn their THINK thermostats up and start to DEMAND obedience. This is an example of what Dr. Ellis called DEMANDINESS. This sets teachers up to find more to get upsets about with students, and to get more upset than is helpful or necessary. It also sets the stage for them to AWFULIZE about what students do, tell themselves they CAN’T STAND what is happening to them, and to LABEL AND DAMN students. Learning to correct such thinking is important. One way is by doing the things noted above.
Another way is called “putting your behavior where you want your attitude to be”. In other words, teachers can practice talking the way they want to think. By starting whatever they say to students with “Please” or by using I Message (i.e. “I’d really like you to sit down”), it can gradually turn their THINK thermostats down from DEMANDINESS to simply wanting, preferring and desiring things from teachers.
You can read more about I Messages at: www.itsjustanevent.com/Tool7.html
IMPROVING TEACHER PREPARATION – STEP 2
Acquiring these “tools” will give teachers a much better understanding of why students behave in unacceptable, unhealthy, self-defeating and even sometimes self-destructive ways. It’s because students also generate a dysfunctional amount of emotion in response to their life events, both past and present, both in and outside the classroom. The same irrational thinking that causes teachers to generate a dysfunctional amount of emotion causes students to do the same. A dysfunctional amount of emotion has the same effect on students’ lives as it does teachers. That same thinking also gives rise to what Rudolph Dreikurs calls “mistaken” goals that get students off course from getting what they might really want in life, and cause them to get into trouble, shut down and eventually drop out in some cases. A dysfunctional amount of emotion then becomes the driving force behind behavior intended to satisfy student mistaken goals.
Once teachers become proficient in using these “tools”, and learn to value of them in their personal and professional lives, it will be much easier to enlist their help and expertise in teaching students the same “tools” for both their sakes. The better students learn to self-manage, the easier teachers’ jobs become, and the more rewarding they will be. As students learn to get into much better mental and emotional places, behavior issues and problems will diminish, if not cease entirely. They will also become more ready, willing and able to learn, and be taught. In so many ways, teaching students such “tools” will be an example of “teaching them to fish so they can eat for a lifetime”, and they will love teachers for it.
There are a few additional “tools” that are helpful for both teachers and students to have. For example:
1) Recognizing “mistaken goals in yourself and others
2) Having a simple, non-judgmental
way to evaluate thoughts, feelings and actions
3) Understanding why change (for them and students) is hard, and what it takes
The entire list of “tools” that I think should be given to both teachers and students can be read about at:
Teachers are typically over prepared academically for what they end up teaching at the elementary, middle and high school levels. There’s nothing wrong with knowing too much about subject matter. However, that preparation is now done at the expense of teaching teachers two important other things that are crucial to surviving and being effective at the lower levels of education. Teachers need to be taught how to better manage their own thoughts and feelings in response to the many challenges they will face in their classrooms. They also can and should be taught how to better understand what is going on inside their students’ minds when they misbehave, or aren’t working, and what they can do about that instead of just handing out consequences. Right now, teachers simply aren’t being prepared in this way. Simply teaching them “classroom management” is not the best answer, and in the absence of these two other skills can be misused and even make matter worse with students.