What qualities make a good teacher? Answers rain in from many people.
Kind. Compassionate. Patient. Diligent. Growth-oriented.
When I consider the common characteristics of quality teachers, I find a single thread that ties them together. This thread, this mindset, keeps me flying high during the best of times, and sustains me through the worst. It helps build rapport and understanding with unfocused and frustrating students.
I gleaned it from Marcus Aurelius’ stoic meditations.
No one does evil willingly.
Okay, maybe evil is a loaded word. This is an old text. Brené Brown wrote a similar mindset in more gentle language.
Assume everybody is doing the best that they can.
Is this mindset naive? Psychology doesn’t think so.
Who “does evil willingly?” Psychopaths. Sociopaths. Those devoid of empathy and rich in malice. Most researchers estimate the prevalence of psychopathy around 1%. Yes, only 1% of students try to piss us off out of pure malice.
Another way to phrase this mindset is a “bias toward positive regard.” In other words, give our students charitable interpretations when dealing with disruptive behavior.
When I was a substitute teacher, I struggled to manage classrooms and to build a connection with my students. When one spends only one day in a particular class before moving onto the next one, how can I? Some comments from students stung.
“I don’t like the teacher.”
“Get your 7-foot-looking ass out of my classroom.”
“You sound like a damn cowboy!”
“Man, we have the most ghetto sub I’ve ever seen.”
It’s hard to prevent such comments from submerging beneath my skin. Though I’m not sure what gave students the idea that a suburban whiteboy was “ghetto.”
Teaching Korean students in a more recurring, stable role is an adjustment. Overall, Korean students seem more well-behaved than their American peers. Nonetheless, some still frustrate me.
Some sleep in class. Others chat while I give instructions. Some chat while other students share their work. Others slog through assignments at a glacial pace below their actual English abilities. If my hair was longer, I would pull it out.
But adopting a more stoic mindset allows me to step back and embrace a broader perspective. Most of the time, distracted student behavior is not malicious or spiteful.
I believe that most misbehavior stems from either environmental stressors beyond my control or classroom factors within my control.
I have no control over students’ lives beyond my classroom’s walls. Students have no control over my life outside of school. I have to step back and remember that students live a life outside of my classroom for 6 days, 23 hours, and 10 minutes per week. And I haven’t a clue of how that life affects their behavior in class.
Maybe they slept two hours the night before. Maybe they are sick. Maybe their parents have negative attitudes toward English education in Korea. Maybe they are hungry. Maybe they argued with friends during passing period.
Maybe they’re teenagers!
Maybe the student is predisposed to ADHD (or other cognitive traits not conducive to classroom learning). Maybe a condition remains undiagnosed. (Mental health in Korea seems stigmatized compared to the U.S.)
There are countless reasonable explanations for students’ unfocused misbehavior. And none of them indict my teaching ability.
Nonetheless, after a difficult lesson, I enjoy considering my own role in students’ misbehavior.
Maybe I need to reinforce classroom rules. Maybe I should implement or tweak a reward system. Maybe I need new procedures to direct students’ attention. Maybe my lesson is boring. Maybe my lessons need to deemphasize passive listening in favor of more activity. Maybe I was tired, hungry, in a foul mood, etc.
Maybe I’m just a fallible human being.
If we remain open-minded and consider students’ misbehavior in the context of their environments and social systems rather than ascribing behavior to character, we can keep perspective. We can also keep our sanity.