Difficult Work: It’s A Good Thing They Like Me

Teachers who say that it doesn’t matter whether or not students like them have something wrong with their brains. It seems to me that one of a teacher’s greatest tools, an ace in the hole, so to speak, or, conversely, his greatest deficit, is whether or not his students like, love, or hate him. Here’s the bottom line—Can I relate to young people? Because if I could not, I know that they would have eaten me alive years ago and I would have gone down as one of those statistics: most new teachers drop out of the profession in three years’ time. It didn’t use to be this way. In the 70’s and early 80’s, when I was a lad, there were teachers that students hated that remained in the profession until they retired. Today, students still hate some of their teachers, don’t get me wrong, but unless the professional in question has incredible skill at commanding some kind of respect or attention not simply based on her authority, this person is probably history.

Authority just does not mean the same thing it used to mean. I’m not sure this is a good thing or a bad thing so I will say that it’s both. We used to respect authority because it was authority and because if you did not you were in all kinds of shit. Today, at least in schools, we respect authority because that authority demonstrates a respect for us. That’s a good thing. But here’s the flip side of the coin. Students today will repeatedly and openly bring iPods and cell phones and game boys into the classroom, they will openly defy a teacher, or call him a name to his face, or tug on his pony tail, or slap him on the back in the hallway for fun. They are comfortable doing these things. They’re not always trying to be mean; they just do not see these behaviors as inappropriate in any way. Teachers are their equals. More broad generalizations, I know, but I think it is true from my own anecdotal experience that students do things today in classrooms and in schools that my peers or I would never have dreamed of doing in our teenage school days. Let’s flip the coin over again, however, and we find that today teaching is more about building relationships and less about exercising power over our minions. Now, I have to earn the power over my minions. And I have these four tools at my disposal: my intellect, my passion about the craft of teaching and the process of learning, my general good will toward my students, and for the most part, because of the music or the hair or the shoes or just because they think I’m a pretty good guy, they like me. And it’s a good thing. So, it’s safe to say, and I think the research bears me out on this one, that one thing that motivates a student is a teacher that she likes. But I’ve got lots of students who like me just fine, or even, like me a whole lot, who are, nevertheless, failing my classes. There’s another difficulty.

It’s Not Enough That They Like Me

There is another tool at my disposal; it’s only a question of putting it into good practice—another notch in the list of difficulties around teaching. And perhaps this is the biggest challenge of all, because, while most studies prove it to be the most effective way to motivate, it is perhaps the less intuitive and the more rigorous way to go. All I have to do is CHANGE MY BRAIN, and thus, by an almost supernatural imposition of will, I can change the brains of my students. Carol Dweck, Ph. D., in her book Mindsets: The New Psychology of Success, says we must work to change our own minds, and then the minds of our students, from what she calls a “fixed mindset” to a “growth mindset.” And voila!—all will be well and right with the world. I’m not being facetious. I believe this. It’s just really hard to do. Quickly, let me see if I can unpack this: A fixed mindset sees things as predetermined; skills, talents, special proclivities are meted out at birth and can never change. You are either smart or you’re not. You’re either talented or not. It’s a recipe for stagnation and mediocrity. Fixed mindset people are often encouraged by parents, teachers, and coaches (who may have also been fixed mindset kinds of folk), with the message that they are smart and talented—and maybe they actually are, but because the message that they are already a particular way is pounded into their little brains, whenever they are faced with evidence to the contrary, i.e., a difficult task, they get easily frustrated and end up thinking the opposite about themselves. I am not smart or talented after all. In fact, I am stupid and without skill. And then, rather than risk further failure, they give up, or worse, they don’t try, avoiding any revelation of their lack of intelligence or skill. On the contrary, a “growth mindset” person comes at every difficulty as a learning experience and every challenge as valuable in and of itself. Every setback is an opportunity, and only when these folks are being stretched, not victorious, do they feel successful. And they work really hard at stuff. They were not successful because their performance was flawless and they “got it” right away, but because they labored intensely toward a goal they found meaningful and rewarding. And, in short, Dweck says that a combination of a nurturing environment and high challenge are the key to fostering a “growth mindset” and instilling a desire for success within students and other humans. And she, right alongside my hero Alfie Kohn (Punished By Rewards), says that praise and blame, the carrot and the stick, are ineffective motivators.

Jessica, a friend of mine, recently sent, and attached to a posting on an earlier one of my blog entries, a lecture by Dan Pink which beautifully summarizes the most recent findings about motivation in the workplace. Three elements, Pink says, maximize productivity from workers: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I’m already beyond a thousand words in this particular blog entry, so I will try to bring this to closure quickly. Can we apply the conclusions of Dweck and Pink to the field of education and the question of what motivates students? Hell yeah. And isn’t this good news? Hell yeah. Because now we know what will motivate students! Let’s see what we’ve got: given a nurturing environment (a teacher who cares for students and in turn is cared for or “liked” by students), high expectations, teacher/student autonomy, and a strong sense of purpose, we ought to be simply cooking with fire. Let’s get rid of unnecessary punishments and rewards. There will be no stopping us then. I’m getting really excited.

Wait a minute. Houston, we have a problem. I feel some air inexplicably escaping from a hole the size of a pin in my big-ass hot air balloon. Do students experience a nurturing environment? Well, as much as you could expect from a 1 to 160+ teacher/student ratio. Are students given high expectations? We do the best that we can, but inconsistently, and some students graduate from high school who are barely or only functionally literate. How much autonomy do teachers and students have? No Child Left Behind and the nation’s obsession with standardized testing has swept a lot of teacher creativity and student choice right under the carpet. What about the punitive aspects of schooling, the punishments and rewards that are part and parcel of the daily, monthly, yearly routine: praise and blame, gold stars and frowny faces, A’s and F’s? Surely, these are receding from their traditional dominance in the motivational strategies of teachers, parents and students—aren’t they? Holy cow. One thing at a time. One thing at a time. Please stay tuned.

Published by michaeljarmer

I'm a public high school English teacher, fiction writer, poet, and musician in Portland, Oregon

One thought on “Difficult Work: It’s A Good Thing They Like Me

  1. Mr. Jarmer!

    I totally agree with you. I think it is critical to be “liked” by your students in order to be most effective. This is not to say that I don’t write kids up and hold them to high expectations. However, I feel like the fact that I do expect a lot out of them and believe completely that they can meet these high expectations makes them feel more confident about themselves. I teach kids that often times don’t have families who push them or expect anything out of them. Having some sort of positive role model in their lives causes them to strive to higher achievement. However, like you, I have students who “like” me and are challenged, but still fail my class. What gives???
    I also like what you said about how even when we have all of these things going for us in the classroom, there are still many constraints that hinder our teaching craft and student success. I feel like I’m constantly working around initiatives meant to “help” that mainly hurt the learning environment. It’s a struggle I anticipate working with for the foreseeable future.
    I’m really glad you decided to blog after all…you definitely have something worthwhile to share! 🙂
    Your adoring former student,

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