By Robert Brooks, Ph.D.
I have had the opportunity to visit many schools and speak with countless elementary and secondary school teachers throughout our country. I have listened to and learned from their views about education. I have also reflected upon my own experiences as a principal of a school in a locked door unit of a psychiatric hospital and as a consultant to both public and independent schools.
My journeys have introduced me to teachers and school administrators who are skilled in touching both the minds and hearts of students, who recognize the importance of focusing not only on developing the intellectual lives of students, but their emotional lives as well, and who through word and deed demonstrate a profound commitment to creating school climates in which all students will thrive.
Talented educators possess a mindset that guides their teaching styles and their interactions with students and reinforces a spirit for learning. The main ingredients of this mindset are predicated on common sense and an adherence to basic principles of human dignity and respect. What follows is a description of the key ingredients that I believe represent the mindset of the effective educator. I advocate that they be learned, embraced, and incorporated by all educators.
1. Addressing the social-emotional needs of a student is not an extra curriculum activity.
At one of my workshops, a high school science teacher in the audience challenged the emphasis I was placing on social-emotional factors by contending, “I am a science teacher. I know my science and I know how to convey science facts to my students. Why should I have to spend time thinking about my students’ emotional or social life? I don’t have time to do so, and it will distract me from teaching science.”
Many teachers and school administrators would take issue with the views expressed by this science teacher, and many educators would concur with her opinion. It is unfortunate such a dichotomy prompts some educators to perceive that nurturing a student’s emotional and social well-being is mutually exclusive from the task of teaching academic skills. Strengthening a student’s self-worth is not an “extra” curriculum. If anything, a student’s sense of belonging, security, and self-confidence in a classroom provides the scaffolding that supports the foundation for increased learning, motivation, self-discipline, responsibility, and the ability to deal more effectively with mistakes (Brooks, 1991, 1997).
2. Empathy is one of the most important skills of an effective teacher.
One of the most vital skills for a teacher to possess is empathy. Translated to the school arena, empathy is the capacity of teachers to place themselves inside the shoes of their students and to see the world through their students’ eyes. Goleman (1995) highlights empathy as a major component of emotional intelligence.
Being empathic encourages us to ask, “Whenever I say or do things with students, am I saying or doing them in a way that my students will be most responsive to my message? For example, a teacher may wish to motivate a student by exhorting the student to “just try harder.” While the teacher may be well-intentioned, such a comment is frequently experienced in a negative, accusatory way. When students feel accused, they are less likely to be cooperative. Consequently, the teacher’s comment will not lead to the desired results. However, if the teacher were empathic, he might have wondered, “If I were having difficulty in my role as a teacher, would I want another teacher or my principal to say to me, ‘If you just tried harder you wouldn’t have this problem’?”
To highlight the importance of empathy, I ask educators to think of a teacher they liked and one that they did not like when they were students. I then ask them to think of words that they would use to describe each of these teachers. Finally, I ask, “Just as you have words to describe your teachers, your students have words to describe you. What words would you hope they would use to describe you? What words might they actually use?”
Teachers who appreciate the importance of empathy constantly ask these questions of themselves. Most importantly, their interactions are guided by thoughts about how they wish to be perceived and described by their students.
3. Educators have a lifelong impact on students and on the development of resilience.
Effective educators appreciate that what they say and do in the classroom each day can have lifelong influence on their students. This appreciation adds meaning and purpose to their work, empowering them and lessening feelings of stress and burnout. In the past 15-20 years there has been an increased effort to delineate factors that help at-risk youth overcome adversity and become resilient (Brooks, 1994; Katz, 1997; Werner & Smith, 1992). Schools have been spotlighted as environments where self-esteem, hope, and resilience can be nurtured. For example, psychologist Julius Segal (1988), in describing resilient youth, writes:
From studies conducted around the world, researchers have distilled a number of factors that enable such children of misfortune to beat the heavy odds against them. One factor turns out to be the presence in their lives of a charismatic adult, a person with whom they can identify and from whom they gather strength. And in a surprising number of cases, that person turns out to be a teacher.
Effective educators believe that they have the power to be the charismatic adult in a student’s life, and they actively seek opportunities to do so.
4. We must avoid accusations, blame, and labels.
At the beginning of my career when children did not improve in therapy with me or in the school at which I was principal, I was quick to call them “resistant,” “oppositional,” “unmotivated,” and “manipulative.” The use of such pejorative labels blamed the very youngsters I was supposedly helping. One of the most significant changes in my own mindset was to accept the notion that whether or not a child benefited from therapy or school had as much, if not more, to do with my style and behavior than what the child brought into the situation (Brooks, 1997). This was a major shift in my thinking, since I had been taught initially that resistance was for all intents and purposes a part of one’s inner character and would be displayed in all situations. Yet, it was difficult for me to continue to subscribe to this belief as I observed so-called “resistant” and “unmotivated” students being very cooperative and motivated with some teachers, but not with others.
Rather than blaming the student through the use of accusatory labels, we should ask what we can do differently so that this student might be more responsive and willing to learn. For instance, I recall one elementary student who disliked school, but loved taking care of pets. When given the job of “pet monitor” for all of the school’s pets, which entailed his insuring that the pets were cared for, writing a short book with the assistance of his teacher about pet care (the book was bound and placed in the school library), and lecturing in each class of his elementary school about how to care for pets, his motivation to be in school, to write, and to learn increased markedly. His teacher and principal had the courage to change their approach rather than expecting him to make the first move. Once they offered opportunities for this student to shine, his “resistance” disappeared.
5. All students are different and learn differently and we must teach them in ways in which they learn best.
There is a plethora of research in the fields of education, developmental psychology and the neurosciences that have taught us about how every child is different from birth and that children have different learning styles and different kinds of intelligence (Brooks, 1998). Yet, even with this research I often hear teachers say, “We must treat all children the same. If we make an accommodation for this student, what will the other students feel? We must be fair.”
When, at the beginning of the school year, teachers openly explain to their students that we all learn differently and that these differences require the implementation of a variety of accommodations, students do not develop feelings that the teacher is unfair. What is unfair and is a prescription for frustration and failure is requiring students to learn and perform in identical fashion.
Some educators express concern that making accommodations will be very time-consuming. However, when I describe the most common types of accommodations, most educators have remarked that they are realistic, achievable and do not necessitate significant changes in the classroom routine. Some of these accommodations include, but are not limited to: (a) permitting students to take tests untimed, and to have additional time to complete class work, (b) establishing a maximum time for homework each night (the child’s parent can verify this), (c) allowing students with attentional and learning problems to have two sets of books, one at home and one at school, to lessen the pressure they experience about not having their books in the right place at the right time, (d) providing assignments for the entire week on Monday so parents can help their children organize their time and work, and (e) permitting students with writing difficulties to use computers for all written work.
6. Understanding that students will be most responsive to learning from us when we meet their basic needs.
Effective educators recognize that before attempting to teach children academic skills or content, their first task is to create a safe and secure# environment in which all students will feel comfortable and motivated to learn. One of the foremost researchers in this area is psychologist Edward Deci. Deci’s model, which contains many similarities to the approaches advocated by Glasser (1997) and Brendtro, Brokenleg, and Van Bockern (1990), suggests that students will be more motivated to learn when particular needs have been met.
Deci articulates three such needs: (a) to belong and feel connected to the school, (b) to feel a sense of autonomy and self-determination, and (c) to feel competent. An understanding of these needs can serve as guideposts, leading educators to ask such questions as: How do I help each student feel welcome in my classroom? Do I provide choices for my students so they may develop a sense of ownership? Do I incorporate and teach problem-solving skills in all my activities so students can learn to make informed decisions? Do I use discipline as a form of punishment or as a way of teaching self-discipline? Do I involve students in creating some of the rules and consequences in the classroom? Do I identify and reinforce the strengths of students? Do I convey the message that mistakes are part of the learning process, that we can learn from mistakes and not fear them?
Effective teachers constantly pose these and related questions. As they reflect upon these questions, they consider whether they are assisting students to feel welcome in the classroom, whether they are promoting a sense of ownership or autonomy, and whether they are helping students to feel competent.
I use a metaphor to capture the need for competence: “islands of competence.” I ask educators to identify, reinforce, and display each student’s “islands of competence” as a concrete way of demonstrating that we all have strengths. Self-esteem and dignity are based upon true accomplishments. Each new accomplishment increases the child’s motivation to learn and to take realistic risks.
7. Parents are our partners, not our adversaries.
The mindset of the effective teacher contains the belief that we must develop close working relationships with parents (Brooks, 1991). I have witnessed too many situations in which educators and parents have become adversaries, and it is the child who suffers. It is not always an easy task to develop positive parent-teacher relationships, especially when a youngster is having difficulty in school, but it is a very important goal to achieve.
In one elementary school I visited, teachers called each parent the week before school began to express their desire to work closely together. The teachers at this school initiated this practice because they realized that the first time they typically called most parents was when there was a problem. Thus, their initial contact centered around a negative issue. They found that communicating with parents first in a positive way enhanced their relationship with parents and, most importantly, had a beneficial effect on the learning and motivation of their students.
8. Special needs or needing to feel special?
For a variety of reasons, not the least of which is to secure accommodations and funding, we use the label “special needs.” From my conversations with educators who touch the minds and hearts of their students, I am left with the impression that it would be more in concert with their approach if we replaced the term “special needs” with a banner in front of every school in our nation, on which these words were proclaimed, “Every child who enters this school needs to feel special.”
The mindset of the effective educator is motivated to help all students to feel special and appreciated. We accomplish this by being empathic, by treating students in the same ways that we would like to be treated, by finding a few moments to smile and make them feel comfortable, by teaching them in ways they can learn, by taking painstaking care to avoid any words or actions that might be accusatory, by lessening their fears of failure, by encouraging them, and by recognizing their strengths.
When we can achieve these things, we will become “charismatic adults.” In the process, our students will learn from us and take the gifts of knowledge, acceptance, and resilience into their adult lives. This is the legacy that the effective educator bestows upon the next generation.
Brendtro, L., Brokenleg, M., & Van Bockern, S. (1990). Reclaiming Youth at Risk: Our hope for the Future. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.
Brooks, R. (1991). The Self-Esteem Teacher. Circle Pines, MN: American Guidance Service.
Brooks, R. (1994). Children at Risk: Fostering Resilience and Hope. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 64, 545-553.
Brooks, R. (1997). A Personal Journey: From Pessimism and Accusation to Hope and Resilience. Journal of Child Neurology, 12, 387-395.
Brooks, R. (1998). Parenting a Child with Learning Disabilities: Strategies for Fostering Self-Esteem, Motivation, and Resilience. In T. Citro (Ed.), The Experts Speak: Parenting the Child with Learning Disabilities (pp. 25-45). Waltham, MA: Learning Disabilities Association of Massachusetts.
Deci. E & Flaste, R. (1995). Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation. New York: Penguin Books.
Glasser W. (1997). A New Look at School Failure and School Success. Phi Delta Kappan,78, 596-602.
Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. New York: Bantam Books.
Katz, M. (1997). On Playing a Poor Hand Well. New York: Norton.
Segal. J. (1988). Teachers Have Enormous Power in Affecting a Child’s Self-Esteem. The Brown University Child Behavior and Development Newsletter, 4, 1-3.
Werner, E. & Smith, A. (1992). Overcoming the Odds: High Risk Children from Birth to Adulthood. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.