Kids and Teachers

After the first week of school, my eleven year old student informant reported back from the “trenches.”  The new school year is looking good with a new teacher “better than last year.  She’s nice.  She doesn’t yell and doesn’t get mad.  The first week she went over the work they will be doing in the coming year.  The assignments are hard but with a good teacher that’s okay.  Every year is a little more challenging.  This teacher is going at the right pace.” 

So far, so good.  My informant promised to report back from time to time to see how first impressions hold up.  But at least it helps to start with a positive feeling.  I gather, too, that the teacher started with a kind of “getting to know you” approach, having individual exchanges with a number of the students.  The atmosphere created seemed to be one in which students felt free to speak up.

The focus on and importance of “doesn’t yell, doesn’t get mad” is striking.  There is a similarity here to children’s relationships with their parents.  When parents are critical or express disapproval of them, children invariably experience this as yelling, or being yelled at.  It appears to reflect the tone of voice or facial expression rather than sound level or what is usually meant by yelling.  (Wives often report the same phenomenon about husbands.)

This speaks to another issue, however, in which there may also be a similarity between teachers and parents.  This has to do with communicating disapproval or correcting behavior without conveying rejection of the child.  The challenge for both teachers and parents is how to be constructive in conveying disapproval and/or corrections so that they can be heard.  The common problem, especially when provoked, is that of giving a harsh response, or in wishing to avoid such a response doing nothing at all about the needed correcting.

In my earlier discussion with the eleven year old, she emphasized the importance of not “doing it in front of the class,” but rather talking to the student privately afterwards.  The same advice might be offered to parents even with no class involved.  Children are often upset when criticized or corrected by a parent in the presence of a friend.  Also, they often hear it as a statement of their worth overall and feel diminished.  When this happens in class, children often experience this as meaning they are no good and that the teacher does not like them.  (The latter, unfortunately, is sometimes true.)

Even good teachers have bad days (like parents) and children complain about them even as they do about their parents.  Often a child complaining about being picked on by a teacher signals something about his own behavior.  In the same way not liking a teacher may reflect having been criticized or corrected in a way that was hurtful. 

In an earlier discussion the eleven year old I spoke with talked about parent/teacher conferences being good so parents could tell a teacher about their child to see if a difficulty relates to the teacher or the child.  This was in relation to subject matter but it applies as well to behavior issues.  A parent helping a teacher understand her child can at times point up a teacher’s misinterpretation of a child’s behavior and lead to more effective handling in the classroom.  The two are often connected in that certain behavior may indicate that a child is having difficulty with some of the material.

In the same way, parents can help their child by explaining something about the teacher.  We can help children sort out whether something is happening because of the child’s behavior or the teacher’s.  This does not have to be an automatic defense of the teacher as authority figure.  The child can be supported in his or her feelings, which can then lead to an exploration of what is giving rise to those feelings.

The connection between feelings, behavior and learning is a strong one.  If a teacher is “nice,” doesn’t get mad or “yell,” an atmosphere is created that is conducive to learning.  Undoubtedly, some teachers are more nurturing than others.  As the eleven year old said, every year is a little more challenging.  Part of growing up is learning how to function in classes where the teacher may not be as “nice.”  Parents have a role to play in that process.