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Secure Attachment: Do Good Teachers Need It?

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As my third period students filed in the door for physics class, one of the 8th graders whispered to me, "They did it again. Ms. Morgan (name changed) cried in class." I wondered what happened this time. Ms. Morgan and I were both new teachers at the public middle school and shared nearly all the same 150 students who appeared 36 or so at a time in our classrooms. While I was older than her, we were both teaching in public middle school for the first time. How did a small group of students know what to do to crush Ms. Morgan and bring her repeatedly to tears? Why did they "go after" her repeatedly and why did a small math mistake ruin her whole day?

While reading Matthew Hertenstein's The Tell "about the power of prediction based on observations of brief samples of others' behavior," I was thinking about teachers and classroom management. Some teachers can control a class of students and some cannot. Children seem to be able to size up teachers in an instant, just as adults can sense from laboratory studies and photos who is more aggressive, what is someone's sexual orientation and other personal things in mere moments. Learning teacher's tells could help them to do better in classroom evaluations from supervisors but could it also help with management?

John Owens' in Confessions of A Bad Teacher discusses how classroom management is not taught in teaching programs. I have watched many teachers struggle with how to deal with a group of children. At several schools, I taught multiple grade levels and watched over years how certain teachers just could not figure out what to do. Sadly, many supervisors do not know how to assist these teachers in improving.

Owens suggests: "I believe that America should return to the notion of teaching as a long-term career and recognize that the first few years really are an apprenticeship, and as such, new teachers should be matched with veteran teachers who are eager and able to serve as mentor-coaches." While I agree this is an interesting idea and potential solution, but who will be the mentors? Who will decide which teachers are able to coach?

From my experience, teachers who have been around longer are not necessarily more capable of managing a classroom. There is an assumption that "experienced" teachers can guide new teachers but I feel that new criteria of attachment may be a more appropriate way to approach who can mentor or reverse mentor in schools.

Parents who were often volunteers in my classroom commented on the different tactics in place to "manage" their children from offering stickers, apple parties, free dress days which were not in use or necessary in my science lab. If some teachers need "gifts" or "threats" to manage a classroom, I would not want them coaching new teachers in these tactics.

Hertenstein talks about attachment and how "caregivers and educators [need] to realize the power of their influence to reshape the brains of children." Given the important role educators have, perhaps scientists need to share the secrets of how to create secure attachment. He discussed a six-hour program given to parents that significantly changed children's futures allowing them to become more securely attached. In fact, there are programs that have been scientifically supported such as the Circle of Security, which could be provided to parents and adapted for teachers. Maybe this class can be given to more parents and adapted for teachers.

As Hertenstein says:

Children deemed secure are significantly more self-reliant and confident in life. Some kids independently do their work, occasionally asking the teacher for help appropriately; others constantly seek the teacher's help, even when it's unnecessary. Secure attachments engender self-confidence; these children know that they can influence their world and achieve their goals through their efforts.

While I do not want to add any more items to teachers ever-growing pile of things to do, the goals of increased self-confidence and independent learning are valuable for students and teachers. Perhaps if we focused on the really important items, teachers would have less busy work to do and could accomplish the most treasured tasks.

The focus in education on testing and grades and now common core standards have not created a vibrant community of learning where all members of the educational team feel they can reach their full potential. We need to put "No Child Left Behind" in the past and find a new emphasis like concentrating on attachment. If teachers can learn "how to reprocess experiences and come to terms with the past" in their own lives, they will be ready to support secure attachment for all the children in their classrooms.

While reading Hertenstein's The Tell, his research also showed that in the classroom, "students form their first impressions of an instructor as early as the first day and hold these perceptions as much as four months later." Teachers especially ones like Ms. Morgan are immediately being graded by students and children can tell quickly what they can or cannot get away with in different classrooms. It is possible to assist teachers by sharing "tells" so that new teachers do not get caught as if "prey" in the savannah by their own students.

Students and other observers are marking "warm, enthusiastic teachers [as] more knowledgeable and better teachers than people who are reserved," but is that what makes for a good school year? "We think we know what makes a good teacher -- expertise in the field, clear goals, fair grading, quality course materials, organization, and accessibility -- but ...the evidence suggests that how a teacher conducts herself is at least as important, if not more so, than course content when it comes to the experience of learning." The 8th graders knew that Ms. Morgan was nervous and insecure; they consistently "attacked" when they could. Several more experienced teachers were assigned to assist but it was a challenging year for her.

The 8th graders who were well-behaved in my classroom seemed to take a perverse enjoyment in making the new math teacher cry when she made a mistake on the board. After the first time, they seemed like animals in the savannah going in for a "kill" and no amount of intervention seemed to help in this situation. They sensed her "weakness" and took advantage. I agree that Owens' idea of mentorship would have worked for her if she had the right person to follow. I did speak several times to the students and request that they behave and even offered to assist Ms. Morgan but as I was a "first-year" teacher at this school, my offer was discounted.

Another option would be assisting teachers directly with their insecurities. "We get a lot of teachers coming as workshop participants at the Bloodline Healing Project," said George Kamana Hunter, founder of a new form of generational healing that works on a community level.

I've observed that most of the newer teachers are not aware of their own sense of boundaries. How can they model healthy boundaries unless they feel confident with their own limits? I tend to challenge teachers with interactive exercises to help them learn to set spatial boundaries and to foster their voice of authority. They need that safe place outside of their school to make mistakes and explore. Teachers need classrooms too.

Teachers do need a village to assist them in their own growth so that they can appropriately assist their students.

Jessica Gelson is a therapist (MFT) who has worked with adolescents with severe emotional and behavioral problems. She continues to work with adults and adolescents in her private practice in Los Angeles. She shared with me that "Attachment between a child and a caregiver, in this case a teacher, is very important, because it creates a safe emotional container so the child can take the risk to be more independent. This fosters emotional, social, and intellectual growth in the child. If children feel safe, they can step out of their comfort zone and into the growth zone. This, in turn, can lead to more creative thinking and problem solving." So children would not only feel safer they would be more able to function fully and achieve their goals.

Gelson continued:

If teachers can begin to look at their own attachment issues and heal their own early wounding, then they can foster healthier new relationships in the classroom. Teaching is not just about imparting information. It is also about helping kids grow up to be courageous, thinking and productive members of society. Successful teachers take their own influence on children's lives very seriously. They do their own emotional work, they "clean up their own houses," so they can be a cleaner and more appropriate model for their students. As a therapist, I use such modalities as the Bloodline Healing Project and individual sessions, to work with adults who are trying to be the best they can so they don't pass their "stuff" on to the next generations.

There are ways to support and not malign teachers but like all professionals teachers need to do continuing education not only as educators but also as role models.

Teaching is a challenging profession that is art and science as well as managing a room of growing humans and sharing new curriculum. I think all of us can use as many tools as possible to create a system where teachers, administrators, parents and students have the opportunity to grow into the best people they can be. If scientists can assist us all to manage our tells and learn from them so we can all have the most secure attachment and self-confidence, perhaps we can all flourish together with no more tears.

About the Author: Lisa Niver Rajna was a 2012 nominee for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching. She was the first teacher to appear on Career Day. She and her husband George are on a career break sharing their world adventures on We Said Go Travel.