Saturday, March 1, 2014

To Hearten or to Hamper: The Teacher's Choice in Setting the Tone for Classroom Interactions

            Entering a classroom recently, I cringed; what I heard was harsh, enough to make me want to turn around and leave; I had that freedom.  Sadly, though, twenty youngsters did not. 
Apparently, Mrs. Smith was having a bad day due to her students’ ill behavior.  She pointed out that Todd had not finished his math, and Seth couldn’t sit still for five minutes.  Beth was writing with a crayon instead of a pencil, and Ashley had left her lunchbox in the wrong place.  For each of these infractions Mrs. Smith felt compelled to express her exasperation to everyone in the room.
My heart broke for these students.  They had been wounded by her words.  Why would any student in this room want to come back tomorrow?  The embarrassment and the blows to their self-esteem that they had experienced that day would have been enough to make me not want to come back to school the next day.   
The climate in Mrs. Smith’s room certainly did not evoke the warm, welcoming nature that inspires students to work hard, to behave well, and to learn much.  While Mrs. Smith seemed to cast blame on students for their shortcomings, the real problem was not a room full of badly behaved kids. 
The problem lies in Mrs. Smith’s choice of tone and focus for classroom interactions. Her students’ behavior issues may well be remedied by examining her interactions with students.
Each day when we walk into our classroom we have the choice of embarking on a good day or a bad day.  We can allow our interactions to build up or to sour our relationships.  We can hearten our students or we can hamper their development. 
What we say has lasting effects on our students.  However insignificant a comment may seem to the teacher, its effect on our students should not be underestimated.  After more than twenty years in education, I have had students come back to me years later to say, “I remember when you said . . . .”  What a simple reminder that what we say has a lasting impact on our students!
Consider how you feel when people speak harshly or curtly to you as an adult.  Children feel no less insulted when we also speak unkindly to them, and because they are surrounded by their peers, they are more likely to feel ashamed or embarrassed.  After all, would you want your principal to say such things to you during a faculty meeting in earshot of your colleagues?
Building a safe and nurturing classroom environment requires a teacher’s willingness to forge meaningful relationships with students, to acknowledge and celebrate students’ accomplishments, be they ever so small. 
            While there are numerous characteristics that define effective teaching, perhaps none is greater than that which comprises our ability and willingness to forge trusting relationships with students.  As educators we are responsible for imparting not only academic knowledge and skills, but also helping to develop the whole child.

The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks. Luke 6:45 NIV

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