Tag Archives: School

Teaching from the Heart

Several years ago, sitting in the kitchen of a hostel in Interlaken, Switzerland on a rainy Christmas Eve, I was engrossed in a book that explained teaching as an emotionally demanding profession. Oh, I thought, well of course.

When I first started teaching, I remember thinking that my time with students was a bit like an improv show. You have a plan that is more of an outline because it needs enough flexibility for nothing to go according to plan. You’re working with diverse groups of students for a specific amount of time and each group is somewhat different and requires varying amounts of time on different activities, but you’re time-bound regardless. Whatever happened before the lesson may or may not be relevant to the tone in the room that day, and whatever is in store later may or may not make an appearance. You never know exactly who you’ll get or how they’ll respond, and if certain students are missing, the whole dynamic could change. So you need a plan that is clear enough to create a predictable environment and effectively use the time available, but you also need enough tools in your toolbox to be immediately flexible. You are always, and I mean always, thinking on your feet. Sounds like an improv show to me!

What makes teaching emotionally demanding is not only that you are constantly “reading the room” and responding accordingly, but that it is relentless. One class leaves and another enters, requiring a change of pace, change of style, change of content. A lesson might have gone poorly but there’s no space for the teacher’s emotion or sufficient reflection during that lesson, in which the teacher is likely trying to figure out what to change while simultaneously managing the current environment. Add to this that young people (any people) have a range of wants and needs that may or may not align with those of the whole class or of the teacher. If a student needs to talk in the five minutes of passing time between lessons during which the teacher thought they might be able to go to the washroom, the washroom will just have to wait.

And this does not even reflect the critical point that students need and deserve someone who is calm, collected, organized, and happy to see them, regardless of how the teacher might actually be feeling. Every interaction, even within the same lesson, should be a new interaction, which can be hard to do. After all, teachers are humans and have feelings even though they are not able to respond to them. Teachers can’t leave the room when a situation becomes stressful or unpleasant. They can’t take a breather to gather their thoughts and they can’t pivot to a different topic when they don’t know how to answer. They can’t pin failure on someone else, separate themselves from someone causing a problem, or attend to anything else that might be on their minds. This is what makes teaching emotionally demanding, and this is why I need quiet when I get home. And to sit down, just for five minutes, because I may not have sat down all day.

So it was a relief to read a book that described my daily experience, all the trials and the joy, the uncertainty and the real love that goes into what I do. It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

Three very recent examples come to mind to illustrate what I mean.

Just the other day while on my bike, I found myself thinking of a particular student who I find emotionally demanding. Her moods are volatile and need to be managed very carefully (and it’s fortunate that she wears her heart on her sleeve), she is often deeply affected by any number of things, she fixates on minutiae, and it can be hard to approach her about the significant academic concerns that she is doing her best to avoid because of the high likelihood of setting her into a spiral. (And this is just one example of one student in one class.)

Yesterday this student asked if she could stay for a few minutes after school to talk about a personal issue. She wanted to talk to me because I teach psychology, she said. Years of questions framed exactly like this have led me to respond very cautiously and always with some trepidation. I do teach psychology, but I am not a psychologist. I am not a therapist, I am not a social worker, I am not trained to help anyone through crisis. Often the best I can do is refer the student to someone who can actually help them. But because I teach psychology, and perhaps because I listen, students think I know things and they come to talk.

As it turned out, and it took me greatly by surprise, this student wanted to talk about difficulties in communication with some of her relationships. She did not specify or provide any details, but explained that she is bothered by communication problems that certain people do not see the same way that she does. She wanted a right answer for how to proceed; she wanted affirmation that she was doing the right thing. We talked about communication styles and preferences, about respecting what people are telling us even when it’s not what we want to hear, and about setting boundaries. We didn’t find a right answer and she left, about 15 minutes later, clearly more comfortable with the idea that there isn’t a single answer, much less a right one.

Musing over this interaction last night, I found myself surprised that a student who is so reactive and volatile was quiet, thoughtful, and reflective when discussing a complex personal problem. She had insights I wouldn’t have expected and was intentionally discreet, showing a greater level of self-regulation that I had previously seen from her. The interaction allowed me to understand her differently, to see a different side of her, and this is perhaps something I can tap into the next time she’s having a rough day and brings that into class.

Teaching is comprised of dozens and dozens of relationships, all of which are enacted at once. And an emotionally demanding element of teaching is being the right person for each of those relationships, each and every time. After all, we are not equals and we are not peers. This is what I mean when I say that every interaction should be a new interaction. The student above should have my listening ear any time she asked for it, even on a day that had already been challenging.

Today, for example, after setting the rest of the class a task, I pulled two students out into the hall after asking them three times to change a behaviour. I had found what they were doing really frustrating and told them so. I am rarely upset in class, and can honestly only think of a couple of instances, but today I was and I could feel it through my whole body. It was an effort to keep my voice very quiet and very steady, and I could feel my elevated heart rate for several minutes after we all returned to class. I don’t know exactly why I was so bothered and it bears further thinking about, but I do know that I was very aware of how I behaved towards these students for the remainder of our lesson, and it took deliberate effort to act as though nothing had happened. Perhaps they felt the same, and it was perhaps as difficult for them to ask questions as it was for me to respond as clearly and gently as I normally do. But after the first “normal” interaction, the ice was broken, and the tension I felt diminished. When one of the students asked a second question, I knew we were alright and we carried on like before.

I can be upset at a behaviour, but this does not mean being upset at a young person learning to regulate their behaviour. When I took these students into the hall, I asked them to consider time and place and explained why this, our current context in class, was not it. Teaching is teaching, all the time, and we cannot expect students to know something if we haven’t made it very clear what it is we want them to know.

Considering what transpired between the end of the school day yesterday and the first lesson of the day today, I had to laugh when a student in my second lesson asked how I can always be so happy. I gave two answers and they’re equally true. First, I explained, what my students see comes with how I see my job as a teacher, regardless of how I might actually be feeling, and I acknowledged that there’s some level of performance in it. And second, I assured the students listening, I love what I do and am genuinely so glad to be able to do it.

My students looked a little distressed at the first answer and much happier about the second, but I think it’s good to have a bit of realism. Teachers are supposed to be teachers around students, and that largely means one thing. One very complex, multi-dimensional thing, but one thing. Teachers are not expected to be human because humanness would require us to acknowledge that complex, multi-dimensionality that we bring to the classroom as part of us and tuck away somewhere deep inside.

This is what I mean when I say that teaching is an emotionally demanding profession, and this is something I wish more people could appreciate. It’s more than lesson plans, more than marking papers, more than meeting with parents or sitting in faculty meetings. It’s more than working with students, writing letters of recommendation, and redoing unit planners. Teaching comes from the whole heart and I can think of no other way to do it.

Professional Development

Every time I’ve interviewed for a teaching job, we’ve discussed the question of professional development: What does professional development look like at the school? What is provided for and expected of teachers? What PD opportunities have had an impact on my practice and what can I bring to the school from these opportunities?

Professional development, or PD in the alphabet soup of education, is how teachers get better at teaching. It’s how we learn about new research and best practices, look outside of what our own schools are doing, make connections with other schools and teachers, and grow as professionals. I can think of a professional development opportunity that fundamentally changed the way I approach my students as learners, and a second that changed my approach to teaching content. I have been a better teacher since and my students have benefitted from my opportunities to learn.

Unfortunately, a comment I hear often on PD days is, “Well, I didn’t learn anything, but it was nice to have the time to work.”

Let me start by saying that it is absolutely nice to have the time to work. Teachers are increasingly (and often overwhelmingly) expected to do more big-picture collaboration work with colleagues across departments that simply do not fit into the school day. The rare time that teachers have together during the day, when it exists, is usually spent on much more pressing concerns, like a plan for the next unit, editing an assessment task, or going over a recent student work. Having the time to work with colleagues with whom we do not otherwise have a chance to work is critical for the cohesive educational programs that we know help students learn. Additionally, there is often work for school evaluation visits that requires collecting materials, filling out questionnaires, and documenting school programs. Collaborative work time is necessary for all of this to take place, and I have never been in a school where teachers have enough time. So yes, we need the time to work.

However, collaborative work time is not professional development. Collaborative work time might stem from PD (we are always looking for new ideas) or benefit from PD (trying to integrate better technology in the classroom might require teachers to be trained on said technology, for example), but it is not the same as PD.

Although I am as grateful for work time as anyone else (and we really are!) I also want to learn. I want the professional development days on the calendar to be about professional development, to help me get better at my job, which is helping students learn. If I walk away from a PD session with one idea that I can try with one student tomorrow, that is a good day. If I walk away from one of our scheduled PD days without having had the opportunity to learn something new, I’m disappointed.

Of course, professional development can come in many forms. I once taught at a school in which a different teacher at each faculty meeting was invited to share something that they were trying in class. Often, these ideas came from working with the curriculum coordinator or attending PD trainings outside of school. Teachers were asked in advance, presentations took no more than 10 or 15 minutes, and we walked away from those meetings with new ideas.

If we want teachers to be independent, creative professionals, we need to give them opportunities to learn and opportunities to put into practice what they have learned. A PD day on a calendar should mean professional development; if the intention is for collaborative work, it should be called as such. The frustration is when collaborative work is confused for PD, and teachers who have been promised PD do not receive it. We cannot expect teachers to more effectively work with students if they do not have the opportunities to learn how to do so.

Big School, Small School

Almost ten years ago (where has the time gone?) I wrote my Master’s thesis on the school where I worked at the time, an all-girls school in the town where I grew up. I had had myriad stereotypes about the place as a student in the area, and I couldn’t have been more wrong about it. This interested me enough to conduct a case study to answer the question of why different stakeholders choose all-girls education. (Short answer: It depends. Long answer: Contained in aforementioned thesis.)

As part of regular practice, I’ve been conducting informal research throughout my time as a teacher. What happens if I refer to this as a “task” rather than “assignment”? What happens if the “rough draft” becomes the “initial submission”? If I want to encourage dialogue in class, should students sit with their friends or not? How does the environment change when the tables are in a U shape, rows of three, groups of four? How does the environment change when student-led discussions are an assessed part of the course?*

I have learned to be a teacher not only through deliberate training, observation, and practice, but also through a lot of trial and error. What works in one environment or for one group may or may not work for another, and there is a significant level of adaptability and flexibility that is required to help students learn. (Insert home-based learning here.) This is why some teachers argue that every class is a different prep, even if the class is a second section of the same subject – two grade 9 Individuals and Societies classes, for example. I don’t usually go this far; the plan and materials remain the same, though the approach might differ. The conversation will surely be different with different groups, and the response should follow naturally from the conversation. The environment matters.

A significant way in which environment matters is in terms of school size. If I were looking for another Master’s research project, I’d be interested in exploring the relationship between school size and culture. I deliberately moved from a school of around 3,000 students to one of around 300, both of which serve students in nursery school through grade 12. The larger school had more course offerings, activities, facilities, and resources. It had more options for students, professional growth opportunities for teachers, and the possibility of just about anything for a project or event. At the same time, it could be slow, bureaucratic, and frustrating to work within that system. With so many projects running at once, it sometimes seemed like nothing was ever thought through before execution, leading to problems that individuals had anticipated and wanted to address, but the meeting to discuss the idea was likely never held because something else took priority.

This is not to say that a small school is the answer to the above dilemma. In a small school, everyone goes above and beyond because the school’s daily functioning depends on teachers acting as support staff where needed. Due to budget concerns, there’s an awareness of cost when organizing large projects, but the projects themselves are easy to pull off in a relatively short time because the scale is so manageable. A limited number of adults also means no middle-management, which gives students and teachers immediate access to the school administration when it comes to presenting ideas or addressing problems. This proximity also contributes to visibility. Students are known by most teachers and teachers are known by most students; everyone is around and relatively easy to find, making for casual rather than formal interactions. While small staff size makes for relaxed meetings and easy dissemination of information, the opportunities for teacher growth and development are minimal.

At the moment, I’m curious about school culture and how the different issues faced by schools of different sizes contribute to the development of a learning environment. On the one hand, I truly miss the closeness of colleagues and friends of the large school and the community that we built among ourselves because the sheer size of the place could be overwhelming. The small school functions more as a collection of individuals who happen to work in the same place; people are comfortable enough that they don’t need a community.

But in the small school, I’ve been able to work with a group of students who come up with school-wide ideas and carry them out without too much interference. The small school also has fewer rules and procedures because individual students are easier to catch and redirect. But I miss having an overview of a process before it begins and clear steps of what to do in different situations, which was the case at the large school. That being said, I don’t miss the time it took to go through processes just so that all relevant parties would have the time to participate. It is easier to get things done in the small school because fewer people are involved, but I miss the teamwork in the large school. I miss having people around who know what I’m doing, but I’m glad to have the freedom to do what I think is right.

As for the students, it seems to me that there’s less academic pressure in the small school but perhaps more social pressure. A smaller number of students means less competition, which may or may not be a good thing, but fewer social opportunities for those who might actually find “their people” in a large environment. When there’s a social problem, everyone is affected, everyone knows, and there’s nowhere to hide. But there are perhaps fewer social problems because the students are closer to one another than they would be in a larger environment. By the time they graduate, many of these students have been together as a class for the majority of their lives, which means they function like a family. There may be some frustration and disfunctionality, but they grit their teeth and get along.

The flip side is that the sadness and apprehension palpable in grade 12 is far greater than anything I’ve seen before. The students understand the school because they have grown up in it, and being in such a small, safe environment with constant supervision has preserved their innocence. Again, this may or may not be a good thing. In a large school, perhaps some students would have been pushed by their peers to be more academically successful, or perhaps they would have been offered courses better suited to their needs. With peers less tolerant of immature behaviours, perhaps some students would have been forced to act differently. As before, this may or may not be a good thing.

I look around and ask these questions because it all comes down to the most significant question: How can I be the most effective teacher for this group of students in this environment?

Step one: Ask the questions.
Step two: Watch carefully.
Step three: Try something. And then try something else.
Step Four: Repeat.


*The last question was actually my first action research project as part of my Master’s program and what I learned from it fundamentally shaped my approach to teaching and learning.