The One Thing You Never Learn from Teacher Training

OK, I admit it: I’m a snoop, and even worse, a speedreading snoop. So when my student teacher left open a document about her experiences teaching with me, I read it–swiftly, irrevocably. In my defense, it was open on my classroom computer (I’m not that snoopy, like reading it on her laptop, say).

Her main problem with me was with discipline. She felt she should be able to give out consequences, to punish students whom she perceived to be disrespectful, uncooperative, or unproductive. She disagreed with what she perceived to be my system without consequences, but she said, “I have to go along with it to avoid complete chaos.”

Oddly, my main worry about her as a teacher was her disciplinary style. I thought her voice too strident, her threats of punishment too hard to follow through on, her one-up banter a dangerous way to deal with junior-high kids.

What then is my disciplinary style? Fortunately, it’s the same as my principal, who said it this way. “You want to keep kids moving in the direction you want them to go, so you don’t aggressively confront them, but you help them see what they’re doing wrong and help them course-correct. The main point is to help them learn to behave well, not punish them for misbehaving.”

Well, yes. This after all is education, and we learn many things, not just academic ones. These days, many parents aren’t teaching how to behave well, how to ask for things nicely, how to be polite, how to interact appropriately with adults, how to follow through on tasks…and many other behaviors we want to see in our students.Image

Our school has a formalized disciplinary system for clearly-delineated, simple rules, and of course, if a student breaks any of those, we proceed through the proper method to hold students accountable. Outside of those rules, inside of our classrooms, we have two roads to take: one punitive, the other instructional. What I work for is a friendly, cooperative classroom.

How you do that is the one thing is something you never learn in teacher training, but you can spot it anytime you see a master teacher, who smiles, uses a modulated voice, keeps her directives simple and positive, and most of all, exudes an unspoken dignity and authority that most students naturally do not dare to cross.

How do you learn that? Can you learn that? Yes, I believe that you can. My husband tells the story of his high-school choir teacher, a diminutive woman who could get her singers to achieve high excellence in music and in behavior, just by standing in front of them with this pleasant, immutable air of authority. I think that like many of us, my husband learned how to be that person partly from being taught by such a teacher.

I have high hopes for my student teacher. She got a great job, and I see in her the understanding and compassion for students that may overcome her initial impulse to isolate and punish. At the same time, I hope that she–and other new teachers venturing out into the world–can someday, somehow imbibe that one thing you never learn from teacher training–how to bring students along to a high level of behavior without consequencing them to death.

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