Classroom 101: Being Human

Yesterday as I was wrapping up a class on content literacy writing strategies, one of my credential students raised his hand. I was in a great mood, having waxed eloquent on ways to build writing into the curriculum and had them all practice implementing the strategies in their content area groups. It had been a good class, a productive class, where I felt I had actually offered meaningful instruction and my students had gained valuable insight and practical skills.
My student’s question however was not related to my topic at all. “Dr. Bathina,” he exclaimed, a look of frustration on his face. “ What you’re doing here is great and everything, but how the heck am I supposed to do any of this when my students don’t listen? None of this can happen unless the class is actually listening!”
The other students murmured in agreement and when I asked them if they wanted to learn more about classroom management, they agreed enthusiastically.
I was surprised to hear that my students felt so underprepared for the crucial task of managing their classrooms, much less delivering effective content.
So I volunteered to provide basic pointers. The next day when I shared the experience with my other class, they were equally eager to hear ways in which they could build an effective classroom environment, voicing their own concerns at being able to implement strategies without proper management techniques.
It was time for me to put content literacy aside for the moment and begin at the beginning. I am constantly telling my students to pre-assess and gauge their students needs before instruction, and clearly it was time for me to fulfill my own students needs as well.
To be honest, I do emphasize good classroom environments from the very start. However I don’t call it classroom management because that sounds too much like a power structure, where the teacher manages her students so that they will do as they are told and then learn what is taught. This goes against all my principles as an educator and what’s more simply does not work.
After seeing how hungry my students are for tips on this subject, I’ve decided to post a series of entries that will be dealing with the different aspects of creating an effective classroom where teaching and learning are possible and will actually flourish. I’m hoping they will be useful for a wider audience.
Today I want to talk about the first requirement for an effective classroom, being human.
Forget everything you’ve heard about maintaining your authority. Teachers need to be human. That is, they cannot enter a classroom at the beginning of the year encased in the armor of education, authority and privilege. They cannot present a façade of perfection and professionalism which never falters. They simply cannot follow the dictates of not smiling before Christmas, lest their students take advantage of them.
Teachers need to share their personal side with students. They need to share their background, their experiences, their flaws, their vulnerabilities. They need to explain that they have also faced challenges and overcome them, fought bad habits and discarded them, persisted in order to succeed. They need to admit that they don’t know everything, that they too are constantly learning and correcting their own belief systems. Too often teachers, especially those who are young and new to the profession, believe that they need to maintain a severe and authoritarian façade in order to command respect from their students. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, nothing will turn off students to learning faster than the standoffish, condescending approach that results from this false belief.
Each semester, I begin my classes by sharing my life story. I show my class a powerpoint with the ups and downs of my learning life map. There are ups, when I excel academically, and downs, where I flounder and nearly drown under the weight of disabilities, personal tragedy, cultural dissonance, rigid beliefs, bullying, all the outside factors that can affect our lives as learners.
By sharing this personal life map, I reach out to my students as an imperfect human being, one who has not always been a professor in the ivory tower, but a struggling, failing, overwhelmed individual who used her education and her persistence to overcome odds and succeed.
My students share their own life maps. We each begin to see the other as human, and therefore worthy of our respect and our empathy.
In our eagerness to establish our position as teachers, we forget that our students find the gap between where they are as struggling confused individuals and where we seem to be as enlightened, confident and powerful beings, much too wide and impossible to cross. If instead, we come across as people, who followed an often painstaking and challenge ridden path ourselves to get where we are, we show them there is hope and that we can help them get there as well.
If teachers begin by acknowledging their humanity, students can no longer dismiss them as other, as the enemy, as the oppressor. If teachers are willing to share even a small part of themselves, and are equally willing to acknowledge even a small part of their students, then that initial connection becomes possible.