I had an interesting conversation with the ol’ fiancee the other day about pedagogy (what else) that got me thinking. She had mentioned something offhandedly about one of her (elementary school) students having made a joke about she and I after they’d met me briefly one afternoon. I said something like “Did that bother you? Did you think that was disprespectful?” Her response was interesting, something like, “Who cares if they respect me?” The ol gal had more or less dropped a zen riddle on me, because I know for a fact that her classroom management is impeccable, and that the kids do really respect her. Her point, I think, was something like “Why do you think respect means they can never say anything personal or that I might not like? What the hell are you, your father?!”
We’ve talked before about how her “classroom management” style is about developing relationships with the students, ones where they feel valued as individuals. Research shows that this teacher-student “rapport” is a key element of whether students learn ( Fiancee putting it in terms even idiot fiance’s can understand: “People don’t learn from people they don’t like”). Interestingly, a major part of not liking someone is when you don’t think they value you or your opinions. And students’ opinions aren’t always positive – for example, we rarely, as educators, think that “school sucks” is a valuable opinion, even though of course school sucks. Similarly, it’s maybe easy to think that “it’s stupid that we have to use microfilm for this assignment” is kind of an opinion not really worth taking seriously, until you think about the fact that as an 18 year old human being you’re probably right to think that having to use microfilm for this assignment is stupid. Instead of recognizing these moments as teachable ones through the vehicle of compassion and empathy, it’s often natural want to deny the legitimacy of our student’s authentic feelings and impose our own values as educators on them. I’m guilty of this too, although much less often, I hope, since I’ve become more and more aware of it (although as you can see from the conversation recounted at the outset, it’s easy to fall into knee-jerk, controlling habits, even when that’s not our conscious intention!). With all this in mind, here’s some nice quotes from the education literature about the importance of taking students’ perspectives into account:
Amplifying student voice is closely linked to situating learning in the lives of students and building relationships. Making student voice part of the culture of the school encourages students to invest in their learning [and is] designed to bring students into authentic interactions with teachers to reshape curriculum, teaching, assessment, guidance, and other matters that influence high intellectual performance […]
Creating opportunities for authentically engaging students in interactions with teachers where they can voice their own perspectives and respond to the perspectives of the teachers can provide vehicles for cognitive development as well as social development … When they are provided with the proper engagement, [students] can … become participants in genuine dialogue or discourse with teachers to analyze and intervene in real issues that have a direct impact on them. They begin to transition from an egocentric focus and to “de-center” their outlook, seeing their teacher’s perspectives, enhancing their ability to think critically, synthesize, hypothesize, theorize, generalize, and determine cause and effect relationships … The students’ voices also provide windows into their frames of reference, enabling their teachers to identify what they value and what affects how they view the world, facilitating bridges for relationships, lesson planning, and eliciting their strenghts and interests.
-Yvette Jackson, The Pedagogy of Confidence, pp. 99-100. (New York: Columbia U. Teacher’ College Press, 2011).
Motivational and behavioral problems are bound to occur for the simple reason that classrooms have rules, requests, requirements, and agendas that are sometimes at odds with students’ preferences and natural inclinations. Under such conditions, students sometimes complain and ex- press negative affect. Students say, for instance, that’s boring, you are asking us to do too much, it’s too hard, it’s just busy work, other teachers don’t ask us to do that, and so on. When teachers acknowledge, accept, and even welcome expressions of negative affect, they communicate an understanding of the students’ perspectives and put themselves in a position to receive students’ negative emotionality as constructive information that can help teachers better (a) align, or realign, students’ inner motivation with their classroom activity and (b) transform an instructional activity from “something not worth doing” (in the eyes of the students) into “something worth doing.” Such acceptance is not the norm, however, as teachers often respond to students’ expressions of negative affect with counter-directives and power-assertions to suppress these criticisms (Assor et al., 2002; Assor et al.,2005). Such a reaction may leave the student with the impression that the teacher is insensitive to his or her concerns. “Quit your complaining and just get the work done” sends a message that the work is more important than is the students’ emotionality.
Acknowledging and accepting students’ expressions of negative affect is particularly important (motivationally speaking) when teachers respond to students’ listlessness (e.g., passivity during learning activities), poor performance (e.g., sloppy or careless work, low grades), and behavior problems (e.g., disrespectful language, skipping class), be- cause the acknowledgment of negative affect signals the teacher’s understanding that the student is struggling and is in need of assistance and support. However, some student acts go beyond complaining and expressing negative affect to involve aggression and harm, and under these conditions the need for teacher control may be appropriate (to protect the welfare of a victim). Indeed, students themselves say, “teachers need to come off as someone who has control” (Woolfolk Hoy & Weinstein, 2006, p. 185), partly because they want the teacher to create an environment in which stu- dents feel safe. So acknowledging and accepting students’ expressions of negative affect is about giving students voice and understanding their perspective, rather than about be- ing permissive or relinquishing one’s responsibilities as theclassroom teacher and authority.
-Johnmarshall Reeve, “Why Teachers Adopt a Controlling Motivating Style Toward Students and How They Can Become More Autonomy Supportive,” pp. 170-171. (Educational Psychologist, 44:3, 2009, p. 159-165).
In her 1984 review of the literature, Hodgson (as quoted in Ramsden, 2003) wrote that many studies “…underline the vital importance of respect and consideration for students in effective university teaching” (p. 74). Ramsden (2003)supported this conclusion by noting that, “The emotional aspect of the teacher-student relationship is much more important than the traditional advice on methods and techniques of lecturing would suggest” (p. 74). Students were more likely to understand the content of a lecture if the lecturer interacted with them in a way that encouraged involvement, commitment, and interest. “Various studies of student ratings of teaching in higher education also identify a recurring factor variously labeled ‘student centeredness,’ ‘respect for students,’ and ‘lecturer student rapport’ among other aspects…” (ibid)Rita Rodabaugh (1996) provided useful examples of how instructors can communicate respect for students: give them ample time to ask questions, allow challenges to the professor’s views, and encourage open debate […]Terenzini and Pascarella (1994) described a number of “myths” related to teaching and learning, one of which was, “Students’ academic and non-academic experiences are separate and unrelated areas of influence on learning” (p. 31). Carson (1996) adds “Studies of the relationship between emotions and cognition explain in another way the link between how students feel about their professors and how they perform in the classroom … Young and Shaw (1999) asked both students and teachers to identify the factors that contribute most to effective teaching. Both agreed that the most important ones included not only traditional emphasis on motivating students and communicating clearly but also a stress on empathy with students’ needs, a factor clearly related to rapport.
The emotional bond between students and teacher – for better or worse – accounts for whether students learn … Effective teachers … are able to connect personally with students … [Unfortunately], Cognitive psychology cannot tell us how to be personable and likable to students …
-Daniel Willingham, “Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How The Mind Works And What It Means For the Classroom, pp. 65-6 (San Francisco: Josey-Bass: 2009).
One thing fiancee’s seem to have over cognitive psychology, then, is the ability to remind you that when people feel like you value them no matter what (as Carl Rogers put it, when you treat them with “unconditional positive regard“), they tend to respond positively. This may include hearing some stuff you might not always like (within certain boundaries of course), just like any other relationship, but, paradoxically, it just may earn your students’ respect in the end.