Teaching is based on relationships and relationships are based on good communication. Good communication fundamentally requires good manners.
I recently ended a blog post about how to talk to a teacher with that quote, knowing I had more more to say about communication between student and teacher. This is part two in the series and deals primarily with understanding and accepting the inequality in the relationship between student and teacher.
If good communication requires good manners, then accept the fact that as a teacher sometimes your classroom communication, and thus relationships with students, will be difficult. Not all who walk into your classroom are taught manners at home. Moreover, these are teen-agers with raging hormones and moods and little ability to think about long-term consequences of anything, particularly the many words that stream out of their mouths.
A colleague recently wrote the following in an email to me, asking for help with a particular student whom we had both taught:
“She must be going through something because her attitude has been in the pits nearly all year. She stopped doing anything on time or putting any effort into anything, and when called on it, she would get an attitude with me. Other students even commented on it and told her she was being rude.”
The student is bright, full of potential, and has previously been a pleasure to teach. Yet now, this stellar teacher finds herself on the defensive; the student going so far as to make it known to her classmates and within earshot of the teacher that she had no intention of studying for the test in that class. Her grades have fallen from her usual standards and she is even using social media to voice her displeasure about the class. (To the students: Most teachers try NOT to know what you tweet, but it usually gets back to us.) This teacher is one who pours heart and soul into her work and it was hard not to take the criticism personally.
To the Teacher: It Is Not Your Fault ! It’s ITB.
I have a friend who coined the acronym ITB when our daughters were young teen-agers. It stands for “Irrational Teen-age Behavior”. Even the best kids exhibit it sometimes; and some teens, a lot of the time. It has little or nothing to do with us as teachers and parents. ITB cannot be explained; hence, the word irrational. This perfectly capable, usually well-mannered, otherwise decent, teenager suddenly gets emotional, stomps up the stairs, says mean things, tells you what an awful parent you are or if it’s your student, tweets to his or her friends how horrible your class is or mutters something disrespectful just loudly enough for you and one or two other to hear it.
Having lived through the teen-age years recently as a parent, I have spent many hours commiserating with my friends – also parents of teenagers – to reassure myself that I am not a horrible person or parent, that “this too shall pass” – whatever ‘this’ is that week, and that my teens won’t hate me forever. The ill will usually spans from the last “no” out of my mouth to the next “yes” to whatever they want to do.
As we were parenting and I tended to get emotional and take personally all conflict with our children, my husband was constantly reminding me, “ Don’t get down on their level. You are the adult. You have superior intelligence.” Trust me; I had my doubts.
The key thing to remember, however, is that teen-agers are fairly self-centered. They are not aware of an effect on you one way or another – though they need to be made aware as that is how they learn. In the moment, though, they are not thinking about you, they are thinking about themselves. Experiences, sufferings, relationships – these are the things we adults have had which draw us out of ourselves and force us to think of and serve others. Years of living, mistakes included, teach us to realize the profound consequences that words and actions have on each other in relationships. By trial and error over the years, we learn what to say and not to say, when to speak and when to remain silent. We adults are often double or triple ( or more) their ages. This is what I mean by inequality in relationship. We have lived some life. Stop and remember this. Teenagers are inexperienced at living, thus inexperienced at good communication, and therefore, inexperienced at good relationships.
Primarily, it is the parents’ job to teach them empathy, to teach them that words have consequences, and to teach them manners; but that is a work in progress. Some are parented better than others, and some teenagers learn those life lessons faster and easier than others; but all of our students, by virtue of being children still living at home with their parents, are in training. They may look like adults. They may outweigh you and stand taller than you. Most of my ninth graders are taller than I stand at a whopping 5’1” ; but they are not adults yet. The relationship is not equal. Your age and experience gives you a leg up on communication, patience, understanding, and hopefully compassion and forgiveness…assuming, of course, you grew out of ITB yourself.