On the emotional, human dimension of teaching

A world map for World Teachers’ Day (photo by me)

On today, World Teachers’ Day*, I‘m going to reflect on my experience of teachers as a school student. I’ve written about what research indicates about ‘good teaching’, but this post shares my personal story of the teachers I remember, and how they shaped me as a teacher.

Growing up, but especially during high school, I didn’t want to be a teacher. I think partly this was because of my dislike for those in authority who saw their role as to uphold what I saw as petty rules. While on the one hand I was a geek who diligently completed my school work and strove for academic success, I did not want to fit into norms set by others. I skipped some classes. I didn’t see the point in wearing the school uniform, unless it was to shackle me to conformity as part of a homogenous group. One year in high school I called the State Education Department and checked their rules on wearing uniform, and then asked that they contact my school to explain that uniform was not legally enforceable. It turned out that the only enforceable guideline at the time was that students in government schools be neat and tidy in appearance. (Yes, I was that student.)

In Year 8, my English teacher insisted that I rewrite a creative story entitled ‘Stop, thief!’ Although I had worked hard and long to craft the story, she told me that a thief should not be good looking with a “chiseled jaw,” and that I was to rewrite him as ugly with a hooked nose and hunched back if I wanted to pass. This felt to me to be an unjust response, one that not only supported what I considered to be an unrealistic and one-dimensional stereotype, but one which failed to acknowledge my effort and deliberate authorial decisions. I wanted my villain to be good looking!

In Year 10, after approaching a teacher to transfer into his higher Mathematics class, I did not pursue the subject change after he told me he wouldn’t speak to me unless I tucked my shirt in.

These experiences contributed to my view of the identity of ‘teacher’ as authority figure and stickler for petty rules, an identity I had no desire to emulate.

After deciding eventually, and almost accidentally, to pursue teaching as a profession, my “I don’t want to be a teacher” sentiment morphed into “I never want to be a teacher like that but I do want to be this kind of teacher.”  As a teacher I am often an advocator for looser rules (such as encouraging mobile technology in class, rather than banning mobile devices) and am guilty of ignoring those rules which I think are there for control and assertion of authority, rather than for learning and developing students into self-regulating, autonomous, responsible, thinking individuals.

At school I connected with teachers who I thought cared about me and my learning, who gave me some scope to try alternative methods and pathways of learning, and who did unexpected things: the Literature teacher who helped the class read a difficult novel by providing coffee and breakfast while we listened to the audio book; the Mathematics teacher who differentiated to allow her students to feel success; the English teacher who would surprise the class by wearing elements of costume while enacting scenes from texts. 

I try to emulate these things in my own teaching, thinking of little ways to surprise and inspire. I began one lesson while standing on a chair, conducting with a pair of drumsticks I had confiscated. I take students to the river or the high street to write. I surprised a very serious class of International Baccalaureate Diploma students, with whom I had been doing difficult laborious text analysis work, by providing them with textas, pencils, reams of paper, and chocolate biscuits (Arnott’s Tim Tams and Mint Slices for my Australian readers). At the end of all our hard work trying to understand 800-plus page Anna Karenina, they were to spend a couple of hours creating a visual representation of the novel. The result was a thoughtful and inspired creation, a train driven by Tolstoy, in which each carriage visually represented a key moment in the novel, with a lit candle at the front of the train and a burnt-out candle at its end, representing Anna’s journey.

A later experience, as a postgraduate student in a class during my Graduate Diploma of Education, supported and developed these earlier experiences of the emotional dimension of being a student and of the impact of teachers and classrooms on student confidence. There I was, in a class of mature age Graduate Diploma of Education students. I was the youngest, at 20 years old, and the oldest among us was 62. We were asked to share our memories of the best and then the worst teacher we had ever had. What I noticed as my fellow students, themselves almost-teachers, responded to this question, was the emotions they seemed to experience as they recalled their memories of teachers who either inspired and encouraged them, or who made them feel small, exposed, and uncared about. I was reminded of the famous quotation, attributed to a number of people including Carl Buehner and Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

It occurred to me during that Grad. Dip. Ed. class that the impact of a teacher, and their behaviour, on a student, each student, can be powerful and lifelong. That what for the teacher may be a throwaway line on a bad day, may for the student be a criticism which cuts deep and lasts a lifetime. It reminded me of the vulnerability of students and the turbulence of finding a sense of self throughout childhood and adolescence. This led me to continually reflect upon the effect I am having on students, my building of relationships, and my self-monitoring of things which may be seen by students as hurtful.

So while I often take an intellectual approach to teaching, looking to evidence, research and impacts, I think we also need to remember and recognise the deeply emotional, human experience of being both student and teacher. Happy World Teachers’ Day!

* World Teachers’ Day is held internationally on 5 October, but as this usually falls in the Australian school holidays, Australia celebrates it on the last Friday of October.

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3 thoughts on “On the emotional, human dimension of teaching

  1. Pingback: The gift of failure | the édu flâneuse

  2. Pingback: Playable

  3. Pingback: Teaching apprenticeships: Legitimate pathway or the death of the profession? | the édu flâneuse

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