Unconditional Teaching

We all went into education because we care passionately about kids. We want to help them to grow and gain experiences which help them to understand themselves and where they fit in to the world around them. Teenage kids are on a path of discovery. They are becoming more and more reliant on personal relationships with friends outside their family and they are continuing to learn about relationships with adults in terms of effective ways to communicate.

It is vital that kids know and understand that we care about them. That we as educators have their well being and success at the forefront of our minds during our daily interactions. As soon as they know we care, we have a chance that they might learn something.

I’d like to talk about two teachers I had in the past. I studied the flute at Music college in London and then in Berlin. Both professors were renowned flute players and highly respected in their field, so I consider myself very lucky to have had the opportunity to study with them.

My teacher in London had a quiet demeanor and spoke to me calmly. She showed through the questions she asked, that she cared about me as a person. My teacher in Berlin had a different approach. A more straightforward-in your-face approach I suppose. A particular example of how the two differed was the task of memorizing music, which, quite frankly I wasn’t very good at. If I arrived at a lesson having not memorized the music, my teacher in Berlin would get angry, tell me that I was wasting his time and stomp around. In stark contrast, my teacher in London would ask questions. “Did you have difficulty learning this piece?”, “How can we make things easier?” etc.

O.K. sometimes I just didn’t do the work that week.  If this was the case, my teacher in Berlin would accuse me of wasting his time, stomp around etc. My flute teacher in London would say “Ben, I’m worried that if you can’t find the time to practice, you’re not going to be able to reach the standard I know you are capable of”

What effect did these two approaches have on me? The teacher in Berlin tried to instill fear into me. The teacher in London shared her feelings with me. I really feel that because I know that she genuinely cared about me, it had a much bigger impact on my learning. When she spoke to me calmly about her feelings of disappointment, it hit me in the face like a sledge hammer. Because I really cared about her and I knew she really cared about me. It made me think. The Berlin approach just got me angry.

In my opinion, shouting at students doesn’t achieve very much except showing them that the teacher can shout. It’s a way of showing dominance over a student and it doesn’t teach them a very caring way of interacting with others. In my experience, simply listening and talking to students about their actions, their feelings and your feelings goes a long way to help them to understand and change.

This is one of my favorite quotes about education:

“ In education, it is my experience that those lessons which we learn from teachers who are not just good, but who also show affection for the student, go deep into our minds. Lessons from other sorts of teachers may not. Although you may be compelled to study and may fear the teacher, the lessons may not sink in.

Much depends on the affection of the teacher.

The XIV Dalai Lama

2 Comments on “Unconditional Teaching

  1. “It is vital that kids know and understand that we care about them. That we as educators have their well being and success at the forefront of our minds during our daily interactions. As soon as they know we care, we have a chance that they might learn something.”

    I could not agree more, and I would even go so far as to add that when we create a learning environment that is safe for intellectual growth, that is to say one that supports, encourages, guides and instructs the intellect, we demonstrate to students that we care. Students know inherently that their intellect is a tremendous gift, and they know when they are squandering it. They know that teachers who really care are teachers who design learning processes that students can really dig their intellectual teeth into. We know, too, that these are not necessarily the most popular or “loved” teachers, but they are the ones who are adept at providing the necessary scaffolding for learning and then stepping out of the way to become a coach, a river guide, a suggester, a fellow ponderer… giving critical feedback along the way. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of the feedback. Unfortunately, the feedback loop has in many cases dissolved into a grinding testing loop that emphasizes grades rather than progress. This is a travesty in education. On the progressive side, there is a dangerous reaction that I’m afraid throws the baby out with the bath water: no tests, no grades. I think this is a mistake. I have seen students engage enthusiastically around feedback assessment. For example, my students liked what I called the FYI quiz, a frequent check-up on student understanding and progress. The FYI meant that no grade was taken but the students scored themselves as a personal gauge of whether they had grasped the basic information at hand. It allowed students to say, “Okay, I’m getting this,” or, “Yikes, I’m really not getting this,” and respond accordingly. One surprising outcome of the FYI quiz was that while students were embarrassed and ashamed of poor test scores, they discussed a poor FYI score freely, often garnering feedback from fellow students about how to manage learning the information. It allowed students to become instructors and transformed the classroom into a community of learners. It also gave me valuable feedback on where the sticking points were in my program. When students were working on self-determined assignments (such as design-your-own projects), they often made a little FYI quiz for themselves to identify the essential facts they had set out for themselves and make sure they were moving toward what we called “authority” on the subject. They found it humorous that a score of five out of five made them an “authority” and declared themselves ready for the master’s degree. Feedback. There is a middle ground, and teachers who help students find the way (quite literally, the “curriculum”) and then give them an informed, experienced second opinion on their progress, are teachers who are showing students they care.

  2. Pingback: Patricia Lynden « Ben Kestner's Blog

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