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Books: The Art of Being an Understanding Teacher

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In A Greenhouse for the Mind, Jacquelyn Seevak Sanders draws on her experience as director of the University of Chicago's Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School to explore the role of emotions in the learning process.

Formerly headed by the psychologist and educator Bruno Bettelheim, who has described its work in several of his books, the Orthogenic School treats emotionally disturbed children.

In the following passages, Ms. Sanders explains the importance for teachers of an "understanding" attitude toward students' feelings:

All teachers, whether in a residential institution for disturbed youngsters or in a regular classroom, deal with psychological issues, whether they like it or not and whether they know it or not.

Children do not leave their psyches at home when they come to class. Even those in treatment refuse to leave their psyches in their therapists' offices. Nor do teachers leave their psyches at home.

For example, on the first school day in January, teachers have to deal with the effects of a one- or two-week vacation from school, the disappointments or elations of Christmas, the letdown from the excitement of the holidays, and the anxiety of what the new semester will hold.

They have to deal with these issues because, no matter what the subject matter, the children have them inside. Ignoring them is as much a way of dealing with them as talking about them for hours.

The problem is to determine which of the ways, if either, is more likely to enhance the education of the children. Talking about such matters may not seem to be in line with most educational goals, but if they are absorbing a child, they may prevent the learning of anything else.

When a teacher is able to find a way of dealing with psychological issues appropriately, the children feel comfortable and learn. When asked what he liked so much about a favorite and very effective teacher, one little boy said that it was that he understood kids so well.

This little boy worked harder for his teacher than he ever had before in school. He was delighted when he was given a higher-level spelling book; when offered this honor the previous year, he had said, "What do I want that for? I have enough trouble with the book I have now."

Since his teacher understood him, he felt that what the teacher valued must have some merit, and so he valued it also. Thus he both felt comfortable and learned.

In other words, a good teacher has to be understanding: not an understanding person, but an understanding teacher. Explicitly or implicitly the good teacher knows that the child needs both under4standing and a clear structure to be secure and grow.

In order to be an understanding teacher, one has to be able to see things from the student's point of view. But in the day-to-day life of the classroom, many things interfere with the ability to do this. ...

Many times a teacher is blinded by ordinary routines and expectations. A teacher of younger children was concerned about the rowdiness of the boys when it came time to put away the blocks. She complained about how difficult it was to get them to do so, and how much trouble they got into in the process.

When asked why they had to put the blocks away at that particular time, she said there was no reason other than that of the established routine. She then realized that she could be more flexible about the ending of block time, to allow for a closure of whatever project the boys were working on.

The teacher experienced this as a remarkable insight that was extremely valuable to her in her work.

It seems that the value was in questioning an assumption. Until asked why the block building had to end at an arbitrary time, the teacher assumed that it was necessary. Simply questioning this assumption enabled her to see another possibility.

Another way to begin to understand others is by watching precisely what they are doing. There are many situations where difficulties could be avoided if this were done.

For example, a major trouble spot in most nursery-school classrooms is the boys' play in the block corner. The teacher is usually occupied with the more controlled, "constructive" table activity, rather than watching the less structured and, therefore, more potentially explosive block activity.

Teachers often do not watch disruptive children until they are disrupting. In the seminars with teachers-in-training, when participants were asked to describe what had happened before a child started misbehaving, they would, more often than not, not be able to do so.

Even when teachers described certain children as acting up "all day long," it usually turned out that these children would be attended to when they were acting up and paid little attention when they were not. (This is often because the adults are so relieved that a problem child is quiet that they just let the child be.)

A teacher who watches learns the cues of the child and thus can tell when the child needs support or diversion. After being persistently asked to describe what has happened, a teacher begins automatically to pay more attention, and the acting up is reduced.

At the Orthogenic School, where such questions are repeated frequently, we concentrate on watching and understanding the inception of disruptive behavior. The teachers learn to be watchful and perceptive and, as a result, to stop the acting up before it starts.

Intellectual understanding of another human being is not too hard to come by, but real understanding, the kind that is useful for a teacher in action, confronted by a class full of children, by disruptive behavior, and by lessons to present, is the result of a long, persistent process.

At the end of a typical day of teaching difficult youngsters, no one is likely to appreciate being asked to think over and describe exactly what happened, or to imagine being in the place of the students. We ask such questions as much as we can, and it helps.

In considering the issue of psychologically sound teaching, the first question to be asked is the same from a psychological point of view as from a curricular point of view: "What are you trying to achieve?"

The importance of clarifying one's purpose is evident in the psychological literature as well as in the curriculum literature. [The psychologist Gregory] Bateson has described the double-bind, a situation wherein the parent makes conflicting demands on the child, so that complying with one demand necessitates doing the opposite of the other.

A most simple example occurs when a mother tells her child to go to the teacher or play with other children, while holding the youngster on her lap, enveloped in her arms. The verbal message is, "I want you to go," while the physical message is, "I want you to stay."

The child is thus in a double-bind: Complying with the one message means defying the other. Bateson suggests that a child pervasively put in such situations can become schizophrenic.

Though we are not suggesting that a teacher's conflicting messages are likely to be so devastating, if a teacher says one thing and means another it can easily lead to a chaotic classroom.

Frequently, teachers are not clear as to their major goals, and often their goals are at variance with what they are actually doing. Asking them what they are trying to achieve frequently is helpful in clarifying a troublesome area, because they are then more likely to think through what they are doing in terms of what they are trying to achieve.

For example, one nursery-school teacher said that she wanted to teach a child to tell another child that he did not like it when the second child hit him. She had an overall goal of increasing reliance on verbal skills.

But as she discussed it, she said, "But it really doesn't do any good, it won't stop [the other child] from hitting him." In other words, her goal was one that she did not believe in. Recognizing this conflict, she was able to re-evaluate both her goal and her actions.

At the Orthogenic School, we have discussed the issue of teaching by asking questions. This didactic technique is frequently used but has some undesirable consequences.

When some teachers ask a question, it is because they really want to know the students' answers. However, since most students have been subjected to this technique for years, they are convinced that any question asked by a teacher is to see if the students know the teacher's answer.

One of our teachers was having a difficult time in her discussions on science. She was using the question-asking technique, and the children were responding with great reluctance.

When we discussed what she was trying to achieve, she presented several goals; but it became apparent that the only one of these for which this technique was appropriate was that of finding out if the children knew the material that had been presented.

However, oral questioning permitted her to find out only about the one child answering the question. She decided that it was better to get the information through written work, which would be both more informative to her and less embarrassing to the children.

Another teacher after such a discussion reexamined her approach to her class's social-studies discussion group. She realized that her major purpose in asking questions was not to find out if the children knew the material that had been presented (i.e., the teacher's answers), but to teach them to engage in discussion.

She had been troubled that this lesson was always competitive, usually filled with nasty comments, and often led to some of the children feeling bad that others were brighter.

She was able to change the tone of the lesson dramatically by beginning to ask questions to which she did not know the answers. To ensure that all participants would have answers to contribute, before the meeting of the discussion group she would give each child different material pertaining to the discussion. A competitive lesson was thereby changed into an informative, pleasurable discussion time.

From A Greenhouse for the Mind by Jacquelyn Seevak Sanders. Copyright 1989 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. With permission of the publisher, University of Chicago Press.

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