The SAIL Teaching Framework

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February 16, 2013

My Math Teacher is Psycho!

I was helping a student with her math homework. I asked her how her teacher had shown her to do a particular kind of algebra problem. She expressed some dissatisfaction with her teacher, and I asked her about it. She dramatically replied, "My teacher is psycho!"

Well. "What do you mean?" I asked. "She's very calm and nice and helpful when we're trying to do math, and then all of a sudden she just starts yelling and screaming." "What does she yell about?" I ventured. "Who knows? Something gets her going, a student says something, whatever, she just yells and screams. Then she tries to go back to being all lovey-dovey. But you know she'll start screaming again. It drives me crazy."

I've spent a lot of time thinking about this. Here was a student who was inclined to like and trust her teacher, but felt violated by the teacher's sudden and harsh attempt to "discipline" the class. I'm sure the teacher had no idea how much her behavior unnerved this student. It was also striking that the student had no idea what the teacher was responding to - "something, whatever" - so the teacher's outburst seemed arbitrary and unpredictable. The student, understandably, was unable to place her trust in the teacher, and thus her ability to learn was compromised.

I am always struck by how unaware of themselves teachers seem to be. They don't understand what they look like, what they sound like, what messages they telegraph. They can leave behind a trail of confused, hurt, scared, angry students. Teaching in a classroom is a particularly difficult kind of performance, precisely because it is NOT entertainment; there is meant to be a specific outcome, an outcome that these days needs to be measurable and demonstrable.

Here is what most puzzles me. I think you'll agree that "yelling and screaming" is a common experience for both teachers and parents. And it doesn't work. No, really, it doesn't work. As a way to vent your frustration, it does make you feel better. Your students might respond by temporarily avoiding the behavior that brought on the outburst. But even this avoidance doesn't guarantee that your students have learned anything except that you yell and scream. And that's what your students tell me after you are through yelling at them: my teacher hates me, or my teacher is psycho.

You wouldn't teach math by yelling or screaming. You might be frustrated that your students don't know what you wish they knew, but you don't take it out on them. Even if you like punishment as a technique, you know not to punish ignorance - your job is to correct ignorance. Why wouldn't you use the same techniques that you use to teach math to teach your students how you want them to behave?

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