Dealing with Teachers

You, as a student, walk into a classroom and someone standing up front introduces him/herself and you feel that this is the person to whom you must cater to for the next "period of time." This person is going to have a great deal of control over you. Perhaps the feeling is similar to the feeling that is experienced when one goes into court and appears before a judge, or when one goes into the doctor's office and must rely wholly on what the doctor is about to do. These are experiences where we feel that we have lost control over ourselves. If we don't do what the doctor or the judge says, there are "grave consequences" and we feel that our objections and questions often fall on deaf ears. Although the classroom, in our philosophical approach to education, is a place for question and challenge, quite often we feel that "now is not the time" or "this teacher is not the person" to question

Two phenomena generally arise. One is the intimidation and/or reluctance that a student experiences especially when thinking about challenging or questioning a decision by the teacher. The other is that generally there are more frequent feelings of complaint than of compliment and students are more apt to be active about their complaints and more passive about their compliments. Perhaps if the student understood the dynamic of the "teacher behavior", the student might understand how to be more productive when attempting to interact with the teacher.

As a student, when we walk into a classroom, just what are our expectations? Aren't they basically the same whether we are in middle school, high school, undergraduate school, or graduate / professional school? We expect that someone is going to make some decisions for us (expecting a degree of cooperation and input from us), and someone some how will lead us into a broader realm of enlightenment. We expect that this person, the "teacher," should have greater depth of knowledge, a wider scope of experience, and quite often, we expect that this person is a "wiser" person and therefore deserves some serious respect. Indeed we often feel that the teacher commands/demands the respect the moment the teacher says "I am going to be your teacher/professor for the next…." In fact what our "behavioral system" suggests is that we have respect for the "office" of the teacher automatically, but that the respect for the individual must be earned.

If we dissect the "charge of the teacher," just what do we feel the teacher should be doing? Imparting information; stimulating us to question; helping us gather some basic data; treating us as individuals (no matter what the size of the class is); treating us fairly (following a combination of moral and legal guidelines); and often we expect the teacher to take a very personal interest in us. We expect that a teacher should be "preparing" us for something! There are times when we look at the teacher as a family counselor, an extended parent, a personal psychologist, a spiritual role model, an officer of the court, an investment advisor, a career advisor; and/or a political guide. As a matter of fact, there are times when a teacher does play all of these roles, and add salesman and entertainer to the list. Although some teachers would resent the two latter categories, in effect the teacher is selling a product or products. The teacher is selling him/herself as someone who is credible along with selling a product that you need/want. The teacher must also make this product viable enough to keep your attention, which often calls for a flexible personality that should attract your attention.

There is a strange parallel here between two people. The first is the consumer who walks into the nightclub and feels that, "I've paid my money, now you tell me a joke and make me laugh." The second is the consumer who walks into the classroom and feels, " I've paid my money, now you explain to me how the Kreb's Cycle works…and I challenge you to make me understand it".

Just what differentiates the middle school teacher from the graduate school teacher? One can make a case that when you take off the custom suit from the graduate end and the "off the rack" suit from the lower school end and do away with the titles, each one will justifiably feel that their responsibilities are just as critical. A problem arises however, when comparing industries, it is a bit more difficult to evaluate the performance of the teacher, as opposed to the performance of the salesperson, CEO, entertainer, automobile mechanic or athlete. In most other endeavors, one can always find a measurable product symbolic of the person's efforts. In teaching, it is usually the personality that weighs in heaviest in the success of the teacher (assuming he/she knows their subject matter). In other careers it is easier to measure the individual because the sales are down, the product is faulty, the car wasn't fixed right, the dollars aren't coming in, fewer paying customers are watching the movie or coming to hear jokes told. If students are failing the course, should this be the measure of the teacher? What can we use to measure the success of the teacher? There are many considerations such as lack of institutional resources, curriculum flaws, testing inadequacies (neither of which may be under the control of the teacher), poor expectancy of the student in terms of student readiness for the particular class, time allotment and excessive administrative responsibilities, or even uncomfortable physical/environmental surroundings that are supposed to be conducive to learning. Should the teacher be measured by "research"? Most successful coaches were not good players in their sports, most successful researchers while comfortable with "one-on-ones" are less comfortable in the classroom (or see the classroom through the eyes of their teaching assistants). However the researcher can certainly be easily measured by the amount of money brought in through grants and / or the volume of publications. What it usually boils down to is that if a teacher wants to be successful (getting the students to learn what the teacher wants them to learn, both in subject matter as well as in life), the teacher has to establish credibility, a degree of loyalty, a sense of fairness, some show of enthusiasm, a display of mutual respect, desire to teach or help, and an indication of compassion. Having an appropriate sense of humor and being tastefully entertaining are often assets when teaching. These are all, for the most part, personal behavioral traits as opposed to tangible, easily measured products. It obviously is not easy to measure a teacher.

If we recognize that it is difficult to engage in peer critiquing, what chance would a student have in attempting to "challenge" a teacher in terms of the grade, test question, course material, or general administration of the class? There probably isn't a standard formula that students could rely on when challenging a teacher. After all, how easy is it for the novice to critique the professional? There are, however, some "road signs" to avoid. This is where understanding the teacher and the responsibilities of the teacher would be of benefit. Similar to the debate where often it is equally important to know the other side's perspective as it is to know your own.

Since personality is a major "commodity" that the teacher has to offer (as opposed to something tangible), challenging a teacher by inferring that he/she is wrong only starts the dialogue in an offensive v defensive interaction. Asserting that the teacher is misinformed about something would generally produce the same outcome. Stating that what the teacher is doing is ineffective would also serve to push the teacher into a defensive posture. Being attacked personally or having your integrity questioned is not a generally accepted interaction and usually results in protecting self as opposed to issue. Approaching a teacher with the perspective that the responsibility for the "failure" (however failure is defined in whatever context) is the responsibility of the student usually, immediately, allows the teacher not to be pressed into a corner, having to defend him/herself personally. Perhaps saying that "I didn't understand the question(s), or the lecture, or the reading" might be less offensive when starting the conversation. Saying that " I know that I did (or am doing) poorly, what might you suggest for me" would probably be a less threatening approach. Using an approach where you immediately accept responsibility is often successful, such as "I found something in the readings that seems to conflict with what I thought I understood in the lecture…can you help me to clarify this?" This keeps the teacher in the role of counselor.

You walk through the door and put money on the counter for the product. If you don't like the product or it is faulty, it can be returned. The chances are that the product was faulty and the salesperson is not personally attacked. When you walk through the door and put money on the counter for education, and you don't "like it or find it faulty" you can't "return" the education. The chances are that you share some responsibility in the ineffectiveness of the "product," and the "salesperson" (teacher) will most probably take it personally. This is when understanding the nature of the teacher and his/her responsibilities should give you some alternative pathways with which you can "alter" the product without attacking personality.

As a student if you want to be understood, than it would be in your best interest to make the effort to try to understand the teacher, as opposed to "paying the money and sitting back expecting the product to sell itself."




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