This is part 1 of a series on memorable teachers. Teaching has been a very humbling experience for me as I’ve realized I still have much to learn about helping others learn. It’s driven me to look back on the teachers who inspired me and try to figure out what made them so effective.
Today, my teacher inspiration is Fräulein Maria, of Rogers & Hammerstein fame. Lately in tutoring, I’ve been stymied by a few challenges I feel Maria is uniquely good at addressing.
No. 1 A student deliberately sabotages the relationship
That scene when the children, first, hide a live frog in her pocket, and then leave a prickly pine cone on her chair at dinner, is enough to drive any self-respecting adult up the wall. I’ve walked out on classes for less (I’m now ashamed to admit).
But what does Fräulein Maria do? Does she play the victim and immediately walk into the trap of power and punishment? No! Does she give up and quit? No way! She sagely, and humorously, describes their ‘welcome’ as what she wished it had been. To quote Maria “I’d like to thank each and every one of you for the precious gift (the frog) you left in my pocket earlier today.” She continues “…knowing how nervous I must’ve been, it was so kind of you to make my first moments here so warm and happy.” Dane Cook would call her a brain ninja.
No. 2 The other adults are not on board
Sometimes, what you truly feel will help a child, is completely at odds with the parents’ or other teachers’ views. An example of this would be a person who believes a little boy just needs to be punished until he can learn to hold still at school. This person may not want to hear that chairs are optional. Simply removing a child’s chair and allowing him to stand alongside his desk, rather than sit, can improve his ability to focus on work. “That won’t teach him discipline” they may rail. Oh, no? Keep reading to issue No. 3.
Maria faces this with Captain von Trapp. In a scene what would probably get most of us fired, she stands her ground on what she knows is right and doesn’t let fear for her position keep her from telling the truth.
While a shouting match makes great cinema, a more tactful approach with your own colleagues/students’ parents may be more appropriate. I think the lesson from Maria is this: keep the best interests of the student in mind and leave your own ego out of it. Fear of being ill-received is not a good enough reason to abandon a learning strategy you truly believe will help a child.
No. 3 When Your Student Is So Distracted by the Environment That He Can’t Learn
Straight jacket uniforms. It’s almost the first issue Maria raises when she arrives at the von Trapps’. She wants to know when the children play and what they play in. When her request for help to get them play time and play clothes is denied, she makes them herself.
To me this is analogous to the problem of being unable to learn because the learning environment is so damn uncomfortable and confining. We’ve all been there. In the office with broken air conditioning, trying to work in the middle of June, or in school, hungry because we forgot our lunch money, or so stressed out by family/finance/work issues that you can’t even think straight. Imagine being a kid facing all of that, some of it secondhand from adults, but having no skills to deal with it.
Fräulein Maria has an answer for that, too. She adds food, play, rest, music, comfortable clothes, and movement. Of course she’s the dream teacher. For some really cool ideas on how to make the learning environment more peaceful and comfortable, check out the posts by Loren Shlaes at minds-in-bloom.com
A real-life success I witnessed, was when I was substitute teaching first grade. I had a student, we’ll call him Trey, with serious control issues. Trey absolutely didn’t want to be told what to do, and asserted his will so far as to do the exact opposite of what the teacher asked just to not give in to someone else. He’d do it even if it caused him discomfort or to get in trouble and be punished. If I said stand up, he sat down. If I said take out your book and go to page ten, he sat their and stared at me waiting for me to try and get him to do it. It was clear this kid needed to feel some control and power over, at the very least, his own body. The hardest thing for him, was to sit in a chair with his legs tucked under the desk. I left the regular teacher, a real saint, a note with this observation.
And do you know what? I subbed that class again about three months later and Trey was like a different kid. He was eager to start every lesson and activity and encouraged other kids to get going, too. You know the only thing the teacher changed? She took away his chair, moved him to the side of the classroom facing the windows where there was less traffic, and let him stand while he worked! That’s it. The flexibility of standing rather than sitting gave him just the freedom he needed to be ready to learn. It was awesome!
No. 4 When Your Student Is Resentful of Adults and Teachers
It’s difficult to maintain resentment toward a person who shows true interest in your thoughts and feelings, treats you like a rare treasure, and really tries to hear you. Fräulein Maria starts off her relationship with the children on the right foot by asking each his or her name and a little bit about him or herself. By doing so, she established a tiny, beginner relationship with each child as a unique individual with real thoughts and feelings.
My most favorite schoolteacher I ever had was Ms. Goble. On the first day of our sophomore European history class, she spent the entire period going through the role, and trying to guess the heritage of our names. She then made us all feel special about wherever our names were from by pointing out cool facts from each country. By the end of that first day, she was everybody’s favorite teacher, and by the end of the school year, she was teacher of the year.
Maria and Ms. Goble beat the resentment that can sometimes grow between student and teacher, by doing something to strengthen the relationship. Find out about your student’s interests and talk about them. Arrange to bring his or her favorite treat every now and then. Imagine meeting him or her again in fifteen years, as an adult, and what you might say. How would you say it? With a superior attitude, as we teachers sometimes fall into? Or would you change what you say or how you say it? Would you maybe show more consideration, tolerance, and patience; would you try to be more interested in their thoughts and feelings?
It’s impossible to be a perfect teacher every minute of every day, but you can have a few perfect teaching moments. It’s stringing together these little snippets of perfection that keep me going on tough days through tough teaching. I know following the example of this great Austrian, at least in these four instances, can really ease the student-teacher relationship. We remember and love Fräulein Maria, because we dreamed of having a teacher like her. Well, folks, today’s the day. You CAN be like her. I hope this post has inspired you to test out a few of Maria’s methods. Whenever I remember to apply them, they always help.
Do you have a favorite teacher? A memorable mentor? Someone who really inspired you? What did he or she do that made learning so special/easier/inspiring?