Did you used to play teacher? Long before I learned what it took to teach for real, I’d pretend. Stuffed animals became the students, or my friends and I would argue over who got to be the teacher first. As “teacher,” we’d each stand at the front of the room, using our primmest and most proper voices to give commands (“Now class, take out your notebooks!”), ask single-answer questions (“What’s 27 plus 45?”), praise correct responses (“Very good, Natalie!”), and scold misbehavior (“Wait your turn, Mr. Teddy Bear!”).
Even after 15 years in the classroom, I still sometimes feel like I’m playing teacher, with my teacher moves and teacher phrases and teacher voice. They tend to emerge when I’m annoyed: Victor comes into my classroom with nothing to write on and nothing to write with, and I self-righteously motion at his desk with my chin and ask in my teacher voice, “Where’s your notebook?”
I’ve experimented with various systems to combat student unpreparedness. I’ve tried incorporating class preparation into their grades, which doesn’t seem fair when their grades are supposed to reflect their performance as readers and writers, not stuff-bringers. I’ve tried listing the supplies they need on the board every day, storing their notebooks for them and the ever-popular scolding of the whole class. Some years I insist I’m helping them by holding them accountable for organization, while other years I decide it’s inappropriate to ask someone with a partially-formed prefrontal cortex to bring the correct materials to each of their nine classes when I can rarely find my keys and phone.
But what I haven’t done is examine my feelings when students show up for class without their stuff—or when they don’t meet my expectations in a gazillion other ways. And I certainly haven’t considered how, when I feel annoyed, I behave in ways that don’t match my values as a teacher.
When I say things like “Where’s your notebook?” in my teacher voice, or when I give a reproachful look to a student who didn’t do the reading, I’m stuck in the image of “teacher” I had as a 6-year-old playing school. Maybe it’s time to stop holding myself up to a predefined form of what “teacher” says and does. I want to make important learning happen—to teach. And playing teacher gets in the way of teaching.
Let’s take Victor. I eventually got him to bring his notebook, but how invested do you think he was in what he wrote in it? Do you think he was willing to work hard in my class and ask me for help? You don’t need to be a neuroscientist to know that “Where’s your notebook?” wasn’t creating an optimal learning environment for Victor. And creating an environment in which every one of my students—including and perhaps especially kids like Victor—feels a genuine sense of belonging and can grow as a reader and writer is my greatest value as a teacher.
I’m not beating myself up for feeling annoyed; annoyance is part of the normal range of human emotions. But I can stop letting behaviors that subvert my values control what I do. Through a process that psychologists call cognitive defusion, I can change my relationship to the mental image of “teacher” that’s been in my head since I was little.
There are many different defusion exercises. A good one is to bring a mental image into the physical world by drawing it. Who is this “teacher” I’m pretending to be? How does she dress? What is she saying? By drawing this teacher and making speech bubbles to show what she says, I can distance myself from the image. I can also carry her in my wallet or tape her to my desk as a reminder that I’m not her and I don’t have to be her. I can decide whether to emulate her or be me.
My favorite defusion technique is taking away some of the power in language like my stern “Where’s your notebook?” by saying it in a silly voice or singing it. I like “Ode to Joy”: “Where’s your notebook, where’s your notebook, whe-e-ere’s your no-otebook…” The next time I catch myself using my teacher voice, I can pause to sing it (in my head!) to the tune of “Ode to Joy.” And maybe if my “teacher” image takes up less space, there will be more room inside me for actual joy—and compassion.
At the same time, I can’t simply let kids get away with not bringing their notebooks. That would encourage behavior that I know will get in their way as they move through school and into adult life. But instead of developing a system of rewards and punishments for class preparation, I can do a better job giving my students strategies to be prepared for class. I’ll have them make supply lists to tape into their lockers. I’ll have them look at their school schedules to find when they should get their materials for a few classes at a time. I’ll have them think of their own ways to make sure they’re prepared.
That’s not playing teacher. That’s teaching.
Porosoff is a seventh-grade English teacher, curriculum design consultant and author of Curriculum at Your Core: Meaningful Teaching in the Age of Standards.
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