Building an Ethic of Caring in the Classroom: Mindfulness

My Post (3)

Series Part 1//Part 2

“I can’t imagine a time you were an impatient teacher!”

When I tell new colleagues, parents, or students that I once considered myself an impatient, borderline mean teacher, they often say, almost verbatim, the statement above. I have worked diligently and intently on becoming the kind of teacher any student would want to have and that I know I would want my own children to have, but the truth is in my early years out of college, I was not that teacher. That’s not to say I was horrible, but I was the type of teacher who would snap at a student if they asked for directions I had just explained to the class. I used sarcasm regularly when I considered a student’s actions dumb or ignorant. I taught as though everyone was listening, and I was at the center of all learning. Typing those admissions out now hurts, but they are true and part of who I was.

Last week’s post gave five practical ways to embed caring in a classroom. Today’s post is a bit more philosophical and will challenge some people’s beliefs concerning discipline and behavior. My goal is not to ruffle feathers so much as to provide a different lens to consider when acting as an agent in a classroom, whether that agent be a student or the teacher. The title, “Mindfulness,” is a plea for teachers to be forthright with their caring philosophies in their classroom as well as for teachers to be reflective and thoughtful–parts of myself that I had to develop once I was self-aware of my impatience and treatment of students. A teacher’s job is challenging on many levels to say the least, and we are all human. Humans make mistakes, including saying and doing harmful and even malicious words and actions respectively. While we cannot eliminate that “bad day” we may all have from time to time, we can, as educators, be far more mindful of how we act and what we say even on the bad days. I consider the advice in today’s post practical too, but I recognize not everyone will agree with the advice. If anything, the post is simply sharing what I have found to be most effective in my classroom and what has made a me a better, more reflective and caring teacher.

Mindfulness in a Caring Classroom:

1. Be Mindful of the Use of Sarcasm

As a young teacher, I defaulted to sarcasm and sarcastic humor a good deal. For some teachers, that comes naturally, right? Teenagers are naturally sassy and sarcastic themselves, right? While stereotypes may exist for a reason, I learned fairly early on that my use of sarcasm, while charming to some, was incredibly off putting and isolating to other students.

I believed in using some tough love and sarcasm was part of that shtick. I coached football for six years and the first two or three years saw me yell and slap helmets and any other number of tough love tactics to coach when really all I did was make my players dislike me and not learn a thing about getting better. I became a better coach the moment I stopped yelling and concentrated on coaching up their mistakes. In time this translated to my classroom, but I didn’t really get to the point of feeling sarcasm has no place in my teaching until I started to give out anonymous end-of-year surveys, which asked students to assess me as an instructor, including questions about how I treated them. Their answers were a gut punch and wake up call for me. Some of their responses showed how I had isolated them with my snarky answers to their questions or felt that I had been rude to other students when I gave a sarcastic quip. A portion of my students felt I didn’t care. I was heartbroken, but I was also motivated to improve myself and become much more mindful of the words and body language I used. This helped in my personal life and relationships as well, but it was transformative for me as I created a much more positive learning environment the moment I stopped using sarcasm to try and connect with students. The reality is ALL students respond to caring, and only a few appreciate the humor and attempt to be like them. I highly recommend giving end-of-the-year surveys to help a teacher reflect on their behaviors and interactions with students. Maybe even consider doing one per semester. Google gives a few examples, but I would recommend asking these two questions often left off of traditional end-of-the-year surveys:

  1. Did you ever feel I treated you unfairly? If so, what happened and how did it make you feel?
  2. Did you ever feel I took a special interest in you? If so, when and how did that make you feel?

2. Recognize Misbehavior isn’t About You (Check Your Assumptions)

We all have bad days. If you’re anything like me, you sometimes take that bad day out on the people you love the most. My wonderful, gracious wife is saying “amen” as I write this. Students also simply have bad days, but I would argue their bad days are a bit more amplified because, you know, still-developing brains. Sometimes (read most of the time) students bring their bad day into your classroom, and that bad day typically has nothing to do with you. But we sometimes make it about us or take a students behavior far too personally.

Remember how much fun you are to be around when you’re hungry (hangry) and there is no food in sight? Well, that hunger is one of many reasons a student could be having a poor behavioral day in your class. We don’t always know when the last time our students ate, where they slept the night before, the health of their relationships. or what unexpected news they got before they stepped into your classroom. We also don’t know their historical experiences with other teachers and authority figures in most cases. Because we don’t know, when that student acts out, we assume they are against us and your best intentions to teach the class. That, I have found, is one of the most dangerous assumptions teachers make every single day. In order to avoid this assumption, a teacher has to engage in mindfulness. A thoughtful approach to why a students may be acting out changes the actions a teacher will take when addressing the concern in the classroom.

There is a reason a student acts out in class, but that reason is probably not the teacher. Helping students through private, one-on-one discussions, connecting them to counselors, reaching out to guardians, and showing that student the same kind of grace we want from our friends and family when we misbehave is a sure fire way to improve the ethic of care in a teacher’s classroom.

3. Acknowledge Students’ Feelings (Especially When Pulling Them to Talk Solo)

As adults, let alone as teachers, we like to do all the talking. I have been a talker my whole life. For instance, I thought as an older brother it was my job to talk to my brother about what he should or should not do or how he should feel. I really struggled with listening. If he were here today, he would likely agree that I just talked too much.

Students desperately want their teachers to hear them. I don’t want to suggest every student wants to divulge everything they are feeling or their life story, but they crave the opportunity to be heard even if they won’t tell you a thing. The act of pulling a student aside and asking them “what’s going on” or “how can I help you” and then listening, just listening, is powerful.

I will never forget the student who did everything he could to disengage from my class every day, including keeping his phone out, putting in his headphones, playing a game on his phone, trying to nap, talking off topic to neighbors, etc. I took up his phone more often than I care to admit, but I also pulled him aside and asked him what was going on and why he continued to do the same behavior every day. I did my best to show compassion and not take his behavior as a personal affront. He often responded with “I don’t know.” He wouldn’t look me in the eye and didn’t want to say anything more, but I waited each time in case he wanted to start talking. For an entire year, we had this same conversation or some form of it where he would act out or disengage and I privately asked what was going on and how could I help, and he would again and again say “I don’t know” or “I just hate school, okay?!” I would say “Okay” and wait. He never expounded on his feelings that year, but the next year as he saw me in the hallway early in the new year, he approached me and just said “Thank you for talking to me so much last year. I just want you to know that it meant a lot that you listened to me.” That was it. We would say “hey” to each other in the hall, but that was the extent of the relationship after that. It was enough for me though. It took an entire year, but he had found in his own hindsight that I cared. I may have been the only one on that campus that he thought did. I can happily report he recently graduated. There was a time I was worried he might not.

On the opposite end of a similar experience was the young lady in my class who had become suicidal and was withdrawing from my class and life in general. Similarly,  we had daily conversations and I just listened and got her into the care of a stellar counselor. She admitted to me as a senior she hated me because I wouldn’t leave her alone that freshmen year, but later found she loved that I listened and realized how much I must have cared. In a letter she wrote the year she graduated she simply wrote “You saved my life.” Fellow teachers, that’s why we need to acknowledge our students’ feelings. I simply don’t have a more powerful example.

4. Model the Care You Want to See

I’ll keep this simple–if a teacher wants to see their students treat each other with respect and kindness, the teacher has to mindfully model the same for them in their interactions with them and other adults every single day. Children watch our every move and internalize our actions an words both consciously and subconsciously.  While we can’t model caring perfectly every day and every moment, we can certainly do it most of the time, but only if we evoke mindfulness as part of our teaching practices. My classroom became a more caring space when I intentionally showed care to my students and my colleagues.


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