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How to Avoid the “Besieged Teacher” Trap

By Robert L. Fried

Children in a Classroom
Photo credit: Michael Anderson

To a new teacher, or a teacher with years of experience, the twenty-first-century classroom can seem overwhelming.  Along with the traditional challenges that teachers face—disobedient kids, unfriendly administrators, demanding parents, shortages of supplies, or feeling isolated in the classroom—there are so many new aspects to consider, so many new issues to resolve, so many new demands to respond to, coming  at us seemingly from all sides:

  • national Common Core curriculum standards to decipher,
  • state mandates to respond to,
  • standardized tests to prepare for by picking and choosing what to teach,
  • district priorities to pay attention to,
  • school-wide goals to implement,
  • grade-level or departmental objectives to work into your lesson plans,
  • seemingly endless paperwork requirements, and
  • a flood of new technology, with its potential benefits and drawbacks,

plus the need to respond to diverse children, their special needs, their parents’ expectations.  All in all, enough to make your job as a teacher seem well-nigh impossible.  The climate created by all of these mandates and pressures may well represent a new height of challenges for teachers, enough to make them feel besieged, overwhelmed, inadequate.

But looked at from another perspective, the goalposts for your success as a teacher can look refreshingly clear and clearly achievable:

  • Help your students embrace these challenges, rather than shrink from them,
  • Recognize that building a strong and mutually respectful connection with your students is very likely to result in higher test scores—enough to protect your creative impulses from censure,
  • Be curious about your students and how they think, and let that curiosity drive your lessons (the best way of enlisting their respect for you and for themselves),
  • Love your subject(s),
  • Make sure that what you teach, and how you teach, relates well to the lives of your students, to their hopes, their current interests and future lives,
  • Help your students teach themselves and each other and feel powerful in doing so,
  • Try your best, when you get frustrated with a student’s behavior to become fascinated, instead,
  • Help them develop pride and confidence in themselves as “smart” in lots of different ways,
  • Resolve, when in doubt, to ask the kids—and listen to what they have to say.

The difference between the first list of bullets and the second list is the difference between being a “besieged teacher” and being a “passionate teacher.”  Besieged teachers spend their reflective time (on the ride to or from school, when they are exercising, upon waking up in the middle of the night) worrying about all the things they’re supposed to do, all that they are responsible for, all that they must try to “cover.”  Passionate teachers spend their reflective time wondering how they and their students can enjoy their time together more, gain in knowledge and power, and take on the wider world with curiosity, creativity, and zest.  They also think about how they can captivate those hard-to-engage students, and how they can reach out to students who don’t seem to feel valued, or to value themselves.

Besieged teachers often feel very much alone and vulnerable.  Passionate teachers are surrounded by partners—students, parents, colleagues, community members.  Besieged teachers are often apprehensive about what may happen in class tomorrow.  Passionate teachers can’t wait to get there.

I recently visited my good friend, Deborah Meier, the author of The Power of Their Ideas and In Schools We Trust and the first public school educator ever to be awarded the MacArthur “genius” prize. Now in her eighties, Deborah is as sharp and as contrarian as ever, but we readily agree that curiosity, empathy, spontaneity, and flexibility—along with experience—are the qualities most likely to lead to great teaching (and, paradoxically, least likely to be emphasized in their preparation as teacher).

Curiosity. It is a teacher’s genuine curiosity about his or her students, their experiences, their feelings, and their ways of thinking that provides the strongest basis for a mutually respectful and truly collaborative classroom. Try This: For the first week or two of the school year, whatever grade or subject you teach, spend at least half the time talking about things that your students know as much or more about than you do.  Pose the question: “What did you learn this summer that is just as important—or maybe more important—than what you learned in school last year?” or “Who is the greatest teacher you have had outside of school? And what have you learned from this person?”

Or pick some questions from the subject area you are teaching. Here are some examples:

Social Studies: “What rights for kids like you ought to be included in the Bill of Rights?”

Foreign Language: “Who are you going to teach Spanish/French/German to this year?” (because we all know that one of the best ways to learn a language is to teach it).

English: “If you were going to write a great story about something you know more about than anyone else in this class, what would you write about?”

Math: “If you had the power to get rid of any part of math—such as fractions, decimals, equations, negative numbers—what would you get rid of? And why?”

Science: “If you were offered a chance to be on the first space trip to Mars—lasting two years—would you go?  What would you contribute to the space mission?”

Health: “If you could live to be as old as you wanted to—getting older all the time—what age would you choose to die?”

Spontaneity. “I never imagined being a kindergarten teacher for more than a year or two, so I never bothered to try to be a professional at it,” recalls Deborah (who taught kindergarten for many years in Chicago before, eventually, creating the landmark Central Park East K-12 public school in New York City in the 1990s).  “I just went into the classroom each day to see what I could discover about how kids learn best and develop their ideas and social skills.  Of course I had a vague plan that included some focus on letters and numbers. But that never interfered with the creative play and story-telling that was our chief activity.” (A recent NPR series has, in fact, highlighted the role of play as essential in developing children’s mental acuity, as well as their social skills.)

“As a result, my young students rarely felt burdened by the weight of my expectations for them. Instead, they occupied themselves with exploring the materials and friendships that were there for them, which of course included my sometimes explaining to them why they should, or should not, do certain things (this is what is now often referred to as ‘classroom management’—a term I abhor, since I have never yet met a person, young or old, who responded well to being ‘managed’ by someone else). They knew that the questions I asked them were real questions, not ones I already had the answer to. Kids are too smart to be fooled by ‘questions’ that are really didactic statements disguised as questions.”

Spontaneous human interaction allows teachers and students to learn how to moderate their own behaviors while pursuing learning that seems meaningful and enjoyable. “You can’t just take away Tiffany’s blue crayon, because if we all grabbed the things we want, then the biggest bully would have all the crayons.” We learn most from the mistakes we make (including how we can best rectify them), and it is in a spirit of spontaneity—which entails looking with a fresh eye at each new situation to see what can best be learned from it—that we are likely to make the most productive mistakes.

Empathy. Most experts agree that all children do the best they can to succeed in life. Often they make mistakes. Sometimes they have not been well treated at home and react angrily or defensively to others. Many fear being embarrassed or humiliated in front of their peers.  If we can say to ourselves, “This kid, who’s causing me such a headache, is trying his best to solve the problems he faces in his life,” we may gain enough perspective to respond sympathetically and creatively, even though this kid is driving us nuts. One psychologist I know, when faced with a kid who in a moment of frustration yells out something vulgar, reacts with, “Well, that was unexpected!” It clears the air, defuses the tension and allows him to follow up, one-to-one, with the child when things have cooled down.

A former student of mine who now teaches English in a bilingual middle school in Boston prepares her students for standardized testing by spending one day per week helping them figure out how to beat the test. She says stuff like, “A typical short-answer test question offers you four choices. Two are fairly obviously incorrect. One is the right answer. And one is designed by the test-makers to make their kids look smart and you look dumb.” The other four days of the week she devotes to Shakespeare, but because her empathy places herself and her students on the same side, her kids do really well on the tests—and learn to love Shakespeare.

Flexibility. It’s getting harder to remain flexible in the face of excessive demands placed on teachers by the expectations of school officials and test-makers, so it’s even more essential to try to remain flexible, to take time to pursue an interesting tangent, to invite the class to take a stretch break, to let your students choose a CD to play while they are reading or writing silently—or to change direction for an hour, a day, a week. Such flexibility can combine all the other ideas, of curiosity, spontaneity, and empathy to show your students how deeply you care about ideas and feelings that are important to them. The confidence you will all gain from learning how to break free of the reins, from time to time, will allow you and your students to become true partners in the learning experience.

The new teacher who goes home in tears every day for the first six months is probably the victim of very bad advice—advice that focused on control and compliance, and that warned “you’ve got to show the kids who’s boss!” Their tears were the result of the teacher’s naturally positive expectation coming smack against an unnaturally hostile and demeaning environment in the school. It’s not you-against-the-kids; it can only be you-and-your-students-against-ignorance.

You can avoid the “besieged teacher” syndrome and discover (or rediscover) the passionate teacher within if you can discipline yourself to focus on the positive goals for you and your students. And if you make building a respectful and productive relationship with them your first priority.


About the Author

Robert Fried is author of The Passionate Learner and The Passionate Teacher and associate professor of education at Northeastern University. He works with teachers in schools around the country, and lives in Concord, New Hampshire.