I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.
– Haim G. Ginott
I am not sure you will find a better summary of the tremendous responsibility of teaching than the words of the late teacher, and child psychologist, Dr. Haim Ginott. This paragraph is one of the reasons I have difficulty understanding our societies struggle to embrace the classroom teacher as an essential cog in the development of a civil, and just, society. As educators, we understand the influence of a great teacher, and as a school administrator, I marvel at those teachers who selflessly invest inordinate amounts of time, energy, and resources to improve the lives of their students.
As Dr. Ginott’s quote suggests, some of the most critical aspects of teaching have little to do with transferring content knowledge, or pedagogy. The essentials lie in what we model for our students, and how we treat them as human beings. I recently finished reading Paul Tough’s new book, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why. The book focuses on assisting students who have been exposed to adverse childhood experiences, and chronic stress. Tough references research by Deci and Ryan that identifies three key human needs: competence, autonomy, and connection. While it is essential that we help our students develop an understanding of the content knowledge and problem solving practices they will need to be successful in the future, there are many valuable lessons the teacher can share with students simply through modeling behavior, establishing a positive classroom environment, and deliberate interactions with students.
- Civility: one of the easiest ways to help students develop a sense of civility is by being attentive to the everyday language we use during our interactions with students and other adults. Consistently using the terms please, thank-you, and excuse me in appropriate circumstances help students understand that treating others with courtesy builds positive relationships and fosters a safe environment. Perhaps the most effective three words a teacher can employ (again, when appropriate) is “I am sorry.” Teachers who admit to mistakes and genuinely ask for forgiveness will foster a great deal of trust and respect with their students.
- Empathy: let’s face it, our world could use a lot less judgement and hostility, and a lot more empathy. Helping students consider how their actions make others feel, and empowering them to respond to others in a way that is helpful and considerate, creates a better understanding of the immeasurable value of every person. As Dr. Ginott emphasizes in his statement, the classroom teacher has the power to “humiliate, or heal.” Seeking out opportunities to heal helps our students develop an understanding of the power and importance of empathy.
- Value of Diversity: I am fortunate to work at a school with a great deal of diversity (socio-economic, academic, racial, etc.). While this presents certain logistical challenges when working to meet the individual needs of students, it affords us the opportunity to demonstrate to our students how diversity positively contributes to our school, our community, and our world. By developing an understanding of the students in their classroom — and the individual strengths they bring to the learning community — classroom teachers have the ability to demonstrate how diverse talents, and experiences, contribute to a healthy classroom environment. We also have the opportunity to model (as mentioned in the comments about empathy) that every student has equal value — and lots of it!
- Self-Worth: as Paul Tough points out in Helping Children Succeed, competence is an essential human need. Every one of our students has something to offer, and every one of our students is capable of succeeding. By maintaining high expectations for our kids, and then providing high levels of support, we can ensure that every child has the opportunity to experience success, to feel competence, develop confidence, and re-enforce feelings of self-worth. As I frequently tell my staff, we have to be on the look-out for the small wins that allow students to build momentum (and celebrate them).
- Sense of Belonging: while many students (and adults) identify as introverts, it is still immensely important that our schools foster a sense of community — emphasizing that we are inclusive and that we are “in this together.” By demonstrating value and respect for the individuals in their classroom, teachers model the importance of teamwork and support. They can help students understand that they don’t have to “do” school, or life, on their own. Teachers demonstrate to students that their contributions are valued, that they are respected for who they are, and that there is a place for them in the classroom and school community.
This short list could certainly be expanded. The point is, that teachers have tremendous capacity to develop students well beyond what is outlined in curriculum standards, or measured in state assessments. As Dr. Ginott so eloquently states, teachers “are the decisive element in the classroom” and they possess tremendous power to positively influence our young people. Thank you to all of the teachers who wield this influence with care and responsibility, and who sacrifice so much to make a difference in the lives of their students!