Watch Your Assumptions

Does your classroom begin with the assumption of conflict? Do you assume that your goals and your students’ goals are working against each other.

To begin with this assumption may seem sensible and even practical, but it is also wrong. Consequently, it interferes with effective instruction.

It is true that when a second grade boy enters a classroom, he is probably occupied with other priorities, such as laughing at somebody’s shoes or recalling the glorious moment during recess when the ball rolled all the way to corner of the playground where the girls were playing jumprope and Daniel got a home run while Ashley had a fit because the ball hit her rope just as she was about to set a new record for skips in a row (can a boy have a more glorious moment?).

But it is also true that a child is inclined by nature to respect any adult that offers him or her any form of leadership (that is why they have to be told not to get into cars with strangers) and that if the child feels respected by the teacher she will be inclined to return that respect. So if Daniel is excited about his home run, can you join him in that excitement, or does it interfere with your instruction?

Let me assure you, if you can enter into (not just pretend) his excitement, which is another way of saying, if you can care about him as a person (not a means to your end of teaching a lesson successfully), you will win his gratitude and even affection. And if you win his heart, you will find him teachable.

Let me offer some examples of what caring about students looks like, but please be careful not to use these as “techniques for effective teaching.” That would reduce it to manipulation and I know you don’t want to do that. I don’t want to describe methods for showing students that you care about them. I want to show you what it looks like when you care for a student. If you care about them personally, it will show itself. If you don’t care about them personally, if what happens in their minds outside of what you have control over in the classroom does not fascinate or even interest you, not to be too harsh but, please either repent or look for a new job.

So what does it look like when teachers care for their students? They notice things, like the ribbon that she (or her mom or dad) tied so carefully this morning, or the new design he drew on the book cover, or the new shirt or blouse or shoes. They pay attention to how he says his name and make sure they say it right themselves. When she is thinking, they give her time, either without interrupting or with modestly and carefully placed questions that guide her to her own end of a clear thought, a perception of a new truth, a better understanding, or a decision.

When he speaks out of turn, they don’t assume rebellion when it is mere youthful energy. Rather than oppose it, they corral it and bring it back to the class discussion, over and over and over again. They are slow to assume that the child is being rebellious when he is being a child.

When she takes a discussion in a completely different way than the teacher had prepared for in his lesson plan, he lets her develop her thought to see if it can be brought easily back or even (really) effect an improvement on the lesson plan. He doesn’t care about “getting through the material” as an end in itself. He cares about teaching the tradition and the truth to the child.

They follow Gregory’s law with devotion, the one that says that the teacher must arouse the students mind to action. Yes, you lead the student. Yes, you are the authority on the matters taught (and if you are not, then please take the time to become one). But you never forget that you are teaching a person, with a God-given and man-to-be-honored will, who suffers in ways that affect his or her readiness, who has joys that are more important than the lesson taught, and who wants to be taught but won’t fall for the deception that what is happening in the classroom is more important than everything else that is happening in her life.

One of the simplest ways a teacher honors the thoughts of a student is by asking what they are. And there is nothing contradictory in pointing out that it is just as fine a thing to ask what they know about the lesson as it is to ask about what is happening in their lives.

I try to begin every lesson (with adults or children) by raising to their awareness what they already know about the lesson and to link the lesson to their experience (which, by the way, I am a part of). I like to ask them for their opinions about things if I am doing a literature lesson.

For example, two days ago, I taught a group of 3rd to 6th graders at the Aquinas Learning Center in Manassas, VA a story called The Gold Coin, which is about a thief. This was my first time with this group of children, so I wanted to learn their names. So I asked them to tell me their names, their grade, and a rather silly question that got their opinion on something. While they were answering the silly question, I was driving their name home into my memory (it’s not hard to do both at the same time).

Then, because they noticed I was looking straight at them while they were talking to me and because I was listening to and interacting with them (including some teasing, which children love to get from adults), they were willing to listen to me. So I said, “I need some advice from you,” and I told them about an experience when I was in first grade and accidentally stole a candy bar (really!).

One of the questions I asked was how stealing would affect my soul, and let me tell you, that question was not even slightly beyond them! After a few minutes of listening to and responding to their advice, I told them I was going to read a story about another thief.

So I read the story (it’s a good one, look it up!) and we were almost out of time so I couldn’t discuss it as long as I would have liked, but we did take about five or ten minutes to wrap it up. I did NOT tell them the “moral” of the obviously moral story. In fact, I told them I didn’t know what this story would mean to them.

But they got it. I have an ever-growing respect for the increasingly obvious fact that the law of God is written in children’s hearts. It’s not just that they know that law, it’s that their being and their thoughts are inclined, by nature, to it. The stories help make them conscious of it.

So I avoid moralizing, because that arouses the wicked pride that covets for hearing that it shouldn’t. I trust the story, I trust the child, and I trust the Holy Spirit to guide the child to the lesson he needs to learn. Rarely do I know what that lesson is. As an aside, that’s the nature of literature.

It’s not precise, like math. 14+2=16, every single time. And you get their, first my memorizing the facts, and then by learning the patterns.

But in literature, the lessons are less precise. They are normative, not analytical. So to predetermine the exact lesson a child will take from a literary (or historical text) is to undercut the work of the text. Sure they should learn to analyze literature, but that’s a lower order skill and should be taught in light of the true end of literature, which is to form the moral imagination while giving them an encounter with the eternal truth.

Because the child is, by nature, literary, to undercut the literary nature of literature is to disrespect the child and to undercut his own thoughts. I may have become confusing, so let me return to my main point and put an end to this. I have found over and over again that when students sense that the teacher cares about what the student is thinking about, the student is happy to align his or her goals with those of the teacher.

The conflict is not necessary, and usually begins, not with the students attitude or actions, but with the teacher’s assumptions. If I confused you, please ask me a question that forces clarity and I’ll try to fix the mess I’ve made. Here’s how Karen makes the point more concisely. “Most of the time, once I have their attention, the students are interested in the lesson.” But watch the transitions.

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