This is NOT sweet talk

I received an interesting comment this week on my blog, with regards to my viral post on what students remember most about teachers:

“This is sweet talk about how important it is to relate to students’ lives. A certain amount of that is important or you can’t reach the students. It is also critical to actually teach in a way that assures students gain the best education possible based on their intelligence. Yes, everyone doesn’t have to be a doctor or an engineer, but some must or our society will suffer immensely. Teachers are not there to make friends of students, but learners. Whether they remember you, is irrelevant.”

To the commentator: I beg to differ, and to also call your bluff.

There are researchers around the globe who are putting forth scientific claims as to why care is vital inside classrooms. It’s not just sweet talk anymore—there is substantial theory and research underway existent to support both my sentiments as well as the premise behind care ethics.

Towards a broader understanding of authority in student-teacher relationships,” is the title of an academic research paper written by Macleod, MacAllister & Pirrie (2012) on the topic of authority utilized in school discipline, and the paper provides reason for a better understanding of “the student-teacher authority relationship” which is also central to understanding what goes on in classrooms; in particular, the authors of this article show how this idea of authority relates to school discipline (p. 494)

Authors Macleod, MacAllister & Pirrie (2012) put forward in this research paper that the common approach to discipline that educators have traditionally held to, in that they have interpreted authority with relation to use of power and domination. Thus, the apparent meaning of authority in this view would be one which enables teachers to engage in forceful action (albeit, not necessarily physical) so as to coerce students into doing that behaviour which is desired; if students do not do what is expected, they run the risk of receiving consequences for their actions. This understanding in Macleod, MacAllister & Pirrie’s (2012) view has led to a neglect of how teachers can use personal authority to elicit a more authentic, positive response to encouraging desired behaviours, doing so in caring, compassionate ways.

Macleod, MacAllister & Pirrie’s (2012) quote Gewirtz (2000) as saying “that pupils continue to be seen as problems to be managed rather than as individuals capable of making decisions” (p. 497). Although Macleod, MacAllister & Pirrie (2012) state that there have been positive shifts over the past decades in terms of how schools interpret discipline, doing so in a more positive light than in some previous eras of schooling, there still is a view to discipline that students must remain compliant if they are to avoid the teacher’s use of control to exercise authority. With the agenda of school boards and government departments geared at performance and output, it is no wonder that teachers believe that classroom control of some sort is necessary (at least this is the view of many teachers) if they are to get anything done inside their classrooms, so as to meet district-mandated benchmarks.

Macleod, MacAllister & Pirrie’s (2012) quote Wrong (2002)’s research as being significant in contributing to the theory of authority.

Wrong (2002)’s view to authority is that it differs in terms of how dominating, persuasive, manipulative and forceful it is in manifestation, as well as it differs in terms of the motivation for the individual to submit to the authority (changes which depend on what form of power is being used). Wrong (2002) lists five forms of authority: coercive, legitimate, competent, personal and authority by inducement, and he maintains that each has application to the classroom setting. In particular, Macleod, MacAllister & Pirrie (2012) take note of what Wrong (2002) says about personal authority, a form of authority based on a student’s compliance to complete teacher-directed tasks/do what is expected, and all because they genuinely like the teacher. This is a form of authority which Macleod, MacAllister & Pirrie’s (2012) state “is something which school children are naturally predisposed to recognize and respond to” (p. 504). Thus, the personal qualities of teachers—their caring and compassion, their trustworthiness, their ability to form relationships with their students, their understanding, their patience and respectfulness…all work in tandem to form a teacher’s personal authority inside their classroom with students.

Macleod, MacAllister & Pirrie’s (2012) claim that it is “in personal authority that teachers can find most optimism for their profession” and this because this form of authority lies directly within their means of influence. Teachers CAN decide how they will be when they show up to class each morning.

Will those teachers be fair?
Will they be respectful?
Will they be patient, compassionate, understanding and trustworthy?
Will they find ways in which to care?

If the answer to any of these lies in the affirmative, then the teacher’s ability to establish a positive, healthy presence of authority in the classroom is a hopeful possibility.

Both for the teacher AND the students.

It Matters That We Remember Our Students

I recently ran into a former professor of mine from my undergrad days at U.P.E.I. I actually had been invited to attend a talk that he was presenting to a small group of people in his home- thus the reason for our paths crossing. As I was re-introduced to him by my friend (after a fourteen year hiatus from studies at the same university where I had first met him), I had already convinced myself that he wouldn’t remember me. After all, the class had been held in an amphitheater-style classroom- I was just a face in the crowd. A number on a spreadsheet.

Why would he remember me?

Why that mattered to me that he remembered me, is an interesting thought. Does it matter that teachers remember their students? As his student, I certainly remembered him- his style of teaching, his topic of interest- even some of the things he had said. But for some strange reason, it mattered to me- in that moment- that he remember me.

As pleasantries were exchanged, he assured me that he did indeed remember me. And he paused to talk to me about my life, work and writing. As we reacquainted, I remember feeling honored that a teacher at the university level would remember a former student from many years prior and thus take the time to talk to that student, me- showing an interest in who I had become.

It mattered that he remembered. It mattered that he was that kind of teacher that remembered. And I am of the opinion that it matters that we care enough for our students to remember them. To remember the essence of who they were when we were a part of their lives.

Can we always remember their names? Regrettably, no. This is a grief of mine. Can we remember all their likes and dislikes? Not likely. All the ins and outs of their lives? The ideas and beliefs they espouse? Their dreams and ambitions? Hardly.

We can’t remember everything, but we can remember something. And that something essentially is that we can remember the person.

It matters that we care enough about our students to remember them, that we care enough to remember the person.

I have students whom I still remember from my student teaching days fifteen years ago. Do I remember everything? Again, this is an unreasonable expectation. I sometimes find myself forgetting details as the years go by. Yes, I forget details at times, but I still remember the person. And I believe I do so in part because I challenged myself to take the time in the classrooms I was blessed to be part of, to be in the moment. To really make what I was doing an experience that I was present for, not just something I put my time into so as to make a buck. So as to do a job, fulfil a mandate or complete a task.

I remember because I made it a priority.

Caring for people requires investment. And when we invest our time- using that same time to open up discussion, opportunity, possibility and conversation, we have more of a chance of remembering. More of a chance of keeping connection. And it’s worth it to ourselves to remember the people who’ve touched our lives, our students. It’s worth it. Because those same students we remember, for better or for worse, are the very reason we do what we do.

They are the reason we are in this profession. The reason we teach.

So in thinking about remembering people who’ve changed my life, I wanted to share with you some students I remember:

That boy in my third grade class who brought his favorite CD in for me to listen to

That girl who loved to figure-skate, whom I drove forty-five minutes to watch practice

That boy in my high school history class who always fell asleep because he had worked at the fish plant until 11:00 p.m. the night before

That boy who I eventually won over- even after I caught him starting a fire in the school gazebo

That girl I wrote a letter to and read to her class after I watch her being bullied

That boy I would have followed to the moon and back after he shared with me what had happened to him that morning before he’d even made it to the bus

That little girl I knew needed extra love- and her parents too

That boy in my tenth grade law class who scribbled words I can’t even describe- whom I knew needed to be read by someone with more authority than me

That girl whom I nominated for a music award

That boy I sang a duet with at the school variety concert

These students I remember, these students I will never forget- for they are blessings in my life, even though I may not have known it at the time. Little graces that I have known along the path. People who have touched my life in this journey of mine as an educator.

True- sometimes my memory fail me. The details become a little fuzzy. The faces might even lose their defining features in my mind. But the person behind that face is forever etched in my heart.

I will always remember these students- their stories of hope, resilience, determination and sheer grit have made me the teacher I am today.

May I never forget the reason for why I chose to be a teacher. For why I am who I am.

It’s because of my students.

I remember…and I am grateful.

I am eight. Maybe nine. We are playing, my little friends and I, on a snowdrift at school. For lack of sleds and toboggans, we are using our snow pants as sliding apparatuses. One goes down the slope, and then the other. It’s a cool, crisp winter day. And soon, it’s my turn again. I make a lunge for it and then I fly. I feel the cold beneath my bottom, as winter snow gear makes intimate contact with frozen, dirty ice.
Without any warning, my head jerks backwards. I feel a tug on my hood and then arms grabbing at me from behind. I have no idea why, but my downward descent has just been abrupted. And then I see just in front of my eyes- the tires on a car whiz by. So close, I can feel the breeze. And by breath is taken quite away. I can feel my heart pounding thunder inside my chest.
That’s how close it was. That’s how very close one can find themselves to the very edge of their humanity.
If not for my friend, where would I be today? It is a rhetorical question, because for all I know, these near- death experiences have happened more than I might ever know. What if I hadn’t paused at that red light to check my watch? What if I hadn’t been sick that day? What if I hadn’t gone on that trip? What if? What if?
And the ‘what ifs’ can serve to either comfort or haunt us forevermore.
What if I hadn’t been born in 1974? What if I had been born forty years earlier? What if I had been asked to sign away my life so as to defend my country’s freedom? What if I had been asked to make the supreme sacrifice? To give my life on the front lines, so that those I was there to defend could live to see another day? So that those whom I loved wouldn’t have to fear the enemy?
What if I had been there? What if I had been the one to stare down the enemy? And what if my life had been changed just by one, small detail. Wouldn’t everything be different? What if all of our lives were changed by one decision, one moment in history, one small, miss-step that made all the difference. Wouldn’t everything for all of us be so very different?
We really cannot speak about what we would do or wouldn’t do. We cannot speak from high ideals that transcend place and time and the context of the day. But we can appreciate. We can say thank-you.
Remembrance Day is one part remembering and one part gratitude. Both are equal in proportion to the magnitude of the significance. Without one or the other, there is not as much value. They complement one another equally.
I remember the day my friend saved my life. I don’t know what possessed her to reach out so quickly and catch me before I was crushed under the tires of that moving vehicle. But I do know that it was for a reason. I remember. And I am so very grateful.
In memory of all the men and women who made the supreme sacrifice. They did it so that we did not have to. And it is because they lived it, fought for it and died because of it that we can now today remember and say thank-you for it. May we never, ever forget.