My yoga teacher shared something with me last weekend that really got me thinking....
Approach problem solving like two detectives on the same team, not like two lawyers fighting over a settlement
When it comes to relationships, and especially relationships between teachers and students, power struggles get in the way of productive communication. They say the most powerful strategy for building a positive classroom culture is to cultivate positive relationships with students.
That makes sense....if you respect me and I respect you, I'll be more likely to take risks, push my comfort zone, and feel empowered to learn as a student in your class
Before I became a full time classroom teacher, I spent a lot of time observing other teachers. How did they manage their classrooms? How did they approach conflict? How did they work with (and sometimes even fuel) the inevitable power struggle that comes when students have bad days in class. It turns out that classrooms are incredibly emotional, vulnerable places for both students and their teachers. The more I observed other teachers, the more I saw the same scenarios of power struggle play out. A student feels bullied by the teacher, so she becomes even more sensitive to acting out. That teacher feels threatened by the student, so she becomes more likely to struggle against that student. Yelling, physical fighting, cutting class, calling home, calling the student out on their failures....even worse....addressing problem students in resentful and condescending ways. No wonder why high school felt awkward and unsafe for so many of us growing up. No wonder why teenagers are more likely to have anxiety, depression, and contemplate suicide. So the question becomes, instead of acting on our own frustration/anger and yelling at the kids to sit down/put their phone away/stop talking....what are we doing as teachers to address the feelings of failure and vulnerability that underly those behavior issues?
This brings me back to my detective/lawyer analogy. So often, I'm tempted to be the lawyer. Sit down because I told you to. Put away your phone because you're holding everybody else up. It's your fault your grade is bad, you didn't even study when I told you you should. What would happen if I sat next to my student instead of across from her, like we were two detectives working on the same case. What would it be like to navigate my own feelings about the situation, help the student navigate her feelings about the situation, and approach situations from a place of mutual respect and empathy. This could play out in a few different ways.
I know you had a game yesterday and it's normal to feel overwhelmed with juggling being an athlete and a student at the same time. While I can't give you late credit on this missed homework this time, now we know for next time what to do.
It's totally OK to feel angry....if I were in your situation I would feel angry too. But it's never okay to put your hands on another student. Now we know for next time, if we feel angry, we leave the situation. I care about you.
I can see how much you care about school through the fact that you came for extra tutoring during your lunch. While you didn't pass the test this time, and I can't give you extra credit, I know you did your best and there will be a second chance later on.
Approaching problem solving with empathy means normalizing and validating the feelings while staying true to the consequences of the student's actions. Help the student navigate the feelings but don't let the student take advantage of your boundaries as a teacher. Note that I'm not trying to be "nice" or "understanding". I'm trying to help the students navigate how their feelings shape their mindsets/behaviors. I sure wish my teachers did that with me when I was in high school.
What I've come to learn is students act out when they're feeling overwhelmed. Emotions relate to behaviors. What would it be like to sit next to the student with empathy, on the same team like detectives?