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School Climate & Safety Opinion

Maslow’s Hierarchy Hits Home

By David Ginsburg — February 04, 2012 3 min read
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In my first post on this blog, here’s what I wrote about my early struggles as an urban teacher:

Just six weeks in, and with my classroom already up for grabs, insult and injury came when I was decked by a stray elbow while trying to break up a fight in class. As it turned out, though, this physical blow was far less staggering than the emotional one I sustained just five minutes later. On my way downstairs for an icepack, I looked out the window and saw a young man's body in a pool of blood. I never felt more hopeless.

The big question, then: How did I restore hope? And the answer begins with Abraham Maslow. More specifically, his hierarchy of needs, which comes up in one education course after another. But did you ever think it would have real implications for you in the classroom? I didn’t--until I told a colleague how hopeless I felt, and he replied, “Maslow’s hierarchy.”

He then asked me where I was on Maslow’s hierarchy, and the answer was obvious, since my switch from corporate executive to I’m-going-to-change-the-world educator was all about self-actualization. “And where do you think most of these kids are?” he asked. And the answer was just as obvious. From hunger to homelessness to estranged parents to crushed confidence, most of my students were preoccupied with needs far more fundamental than being all they could be.

The implication of this was obvious too. Treating students as though they had the same priorities and goals that I had at their ages was a set-up for frustration--for students and me alike. Projecting my values onto students was causing me to clash with kids rather than connect with them. In essence, I felt hopeless because I felt helpless, an inevitable outcome when you try to help others in ways they don’t want help.

The point here isn’t that we as educators can--or should even try to--fill all voids in students’ lives outside of school. We must, however, do our part to address students’ needs in school. A common unmet need among my students, for example, related to self-esteem, which I addressed in many ways including those I’ve shared in previous posts (Behavior Management and Classroom Culture categories).

Yet the reason my Maslow’s hierarchy reflection helped restore hope for me had more to do with appreciating students’ needs than addressing them. This reflection also inspired me to not only consider how students’ needs differed from mine, but how their lives differed from mine. And when those differences contributed to behaviors that I considered unacceptable, whereas I once would have been furious, I later became curious.

I now work with school leaders and teachers to also respond to students’ behavior with curiosity rather than preconceptions. I’m reminded of a first-year teacher I coached whose background was very different from her students’ backgrounds. One day I heard her say to a student, “Thomas, you’d be doing much better in here if you weren’t late. You need to start getting here on time.”

After praising this teacher for being concerned about Thomas, I asked her if she knew why he was tardy. She said she wasn’t sure, but figured he was staying up late watching TV or playing video games. I told her that was possible, but that sometimes students are late for reasons beyond their control. And sure enough, we looked into this situation and found out that 13-year old Thomas was responsible for getting three younger siblings ready in the morning and walking them to school in the opposite direction of his school.

With a new perspective, this teacher helped Thomas develop a plan for getting caught up when he was late. More important, from that point on, she stopped concluding based solely on her life what students needed or why they acted a certain way, and instead also considered the realities of their lives.

In my experience, that’s something all great teachers do--and something Maslow’s hierarchy speaks to.

Image by GECC, with permission

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