Complexity of Teaching

12/27/2008 11:02 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

There you stand trying to get the attention of your thirty-four students. Each one is so different from the others that it would take hours to list their physical, mental, emotional, and cultural differences. Yet, your job is to impart to this group a very specific body of information and skills in a prescribed amount of time using prescribed texts and materials -- and you are to keep them quiet, attentive, and on-task after you give them an assignment. It is totally impossible to do hour-after-hour, day-after-day.

Further, you are to take into consideration that the students come from many different subcultures and families with very different philosophies of life, religious beliefs, and ethical-moral standards. In your presentations you must understand and anticipate these enormous differences and must be careful not to say anything that may contradict what their parents or subculture believes. Since, even though in each subculture, there are major differences in interpretation, you must not offend any of them. Of course, this is also impossible!

Every second of every minute of every hour you are faced constantly with split second decisions in what you say and do depending on what the student or students are really doing or not doing. You are expected to plan for and have alternative lessons for the majority and specific other lessons for the gifted and for the slower students. If you don't you may see this on your evaluation. You are expected to get them all to a specific grade level even though two of the major variables in their getting there such as socioeconomic status and actual genetic abilities are beyond your control. (Actually, you cannot change their genetics, but good teaching means you help the students improve on whatever they were handed genetically.)

You are expected not to tolerate the bored, the depressed, the apathetic, or the hostile student, but you are allowed to deal with them only in very limited ways. These often do not take into consideration the situation as it unfolds in which you have made the best possible response. Since those who will judge you weren't there, they can easily second-guess you and see how you should have responded - from their limited view of it.

Any person older than six years of age could come into your classroom at any moment in time and see dozens of things you could be doing differently. In many cases if you could relive the situation you would do it differently. The point is that you are dealing with an enormously complex situation in which there are many, quite legitimate, reasonable, and educationally sound ways to respond in these split second decisions. What is frustrating is that you often have to defend your actions to someone who would have done it differently based on his policies, beliefs, or prejudices. A decision, not better than yours, but different and based on hindsight, which is easy to make because it is not a battlefield decision.

Being on the defensive and fearing being on the defensive causes you to make decisions based not on your best evaluations of what to do, but what you believe a supervisor would judge you for doing. (Or you do the Politically Correct thing because it is the safest course.) It does not come from you. This causes you to make errors (if they are errors) you would not make if you were given the trust and responsibility of doing what you felt and knew to be the best response at that moment.

Your response is similar to Martin Seligman's concept of "learned helplessness." You learn to be helpless because you are not allowed to be yourself and learn from your mistakes. It is most obvious in totalitarian states in which the government controls your life and thought. Everyone spies on everyone else. Children report their parents who then disappear. Teachers here are fired - or destroyed emotionally.

In our schools, in the name of democracy or equity, a child can report a teacher for real or believed offenses or for expressing opinions or ideas different from what the student has been taught. You are then in trouble for being yourself. Knowing this may cause learned helplessness in you.

In a truly free and democratic system, you should first hear the accusation from the student or the parent and be given the chance to respond without fear or defensiveness. If you agree you were wrong a simple apology should suffice. If it is an honest disagreement then a reasonable compromise should be reached. Unfortunately, too often, the student brings home a complaint that the parent doesn't bother to ask you about, but instead s/he goes to the principal, superintendent, or school board member. This results in wasted time, unnecessary pain and frustrations for all concerned. The reason it continues this way is that fear is a good way to control you.

However, your "learned helplessness" is transmitted to the students. As a teacher controlled by your supervisors you believe and use external control techniques, because that is what you know and experience yourself -- it reflects what is being done to you. So, you and your students are easier to control. A major purpose of public schools is the transmission of a set curriculum, yet they have two unstated goals -- to create good consumers and a docile, controlled public.

A student may get incensed and angry at either what you said or didn't say or do and you are expected to respond without losing control or worsening the situation. Since disturbed and dysfunctional children are mainstreamed into your classroom, you are expected to deal with complicated physical, mental, and emotional problems that are difficult or impossible to deal with even by health care professionals. If you do not deal with them appropriately, you may be insulted, harassed, or fired - even if you were not informed beforehand about the student's problems because the parent didn't tell anyone while enrolling him.

Add to this is that in your class are a few students who are consciously or unconsciously dedicated to undermining your legal authority and disrupting your presentations. You may not strike, insult, or talk loudly to these or any other students or you could be sued by their doting parents. Worse, you may not know what a child has told his parent who has then informed an administrator who may not tell you until the situation has crystallized and your life and career are in jeopardy. Worse yet, you could be declared innocent by your school board, but then be sued in civil court or be tried by the Licensing Board and either lose huge amounts of money and then even your right to teach.

Add to this is the fact that people in Washington and Sacramento who are miles away from your classroom and have no idea of what you face are busy making laws and policies based on erroneous, inadequate, or misinterpreted information. They threaten you from receiving money critical for maintaining your program and by holding you ransom unless you teach doing things you know are bad for your students. Your administrators are equally held to the same gunpoint and straitjackets. Worse, they are placed in an adversarial position against you instead of the cooperative, collegial one necessary in implementing any kind of educational program.

Sounds ominous, but there is another reality. You belong to a lobbying group that is quite powerful. It protects you and your job and makes it difficult for you to be fired for anything except the most serious legal offenses. This does not mean you cannot be harassed and irritated by pettiness and stupid policies, but these are the reality in any large organization.

More importantly, despite these huge obstacles you are in the profession that gives you the most constant strokes, the most opportunities to have emotionally and intellectually satisfying relationships with your students, their parents, and your colleagues. Every day you get to see the impact you are making as you, against all odds, are changing and improving lives forever. Think back on those teachers that you admired, loved, and who made a difference in your life.

If you're not already, you can be that teacher! Because of the hazards mentioned, teachers are leaving like lemmings, but you could keep a good teacher, you, from leaving by realizing that you are not helpless, but can beat the odds.

Who's at fault? Everyone! No one! I believe that for a teacher to deal most effectively with the complexities of a classroom you must be considered the expert in your room. No one else lives with your students all day. Only you see so many things that others are not privy to so that you, even the beginning teacher, knows your class better than anyone else, no matter their legal power or expertise. You need to be treated like the professional you are and be allowed to make your own mistakes and learn from them. In turn you should allow your students the same rights. You should expect the best from yourself by continuously learning to improve your skills and be the model of civil as well as intellectual behavior. You should have the courage to admit you are wrong when you are and stand up for your decisions when you are right.

Neither you nor the public should expect you to be perfect, but be a work in progress. In turn you treat your students in the same manner. You should be organized, thoughtful, and learn from your mistakes and expect the same from your students. This depends on sharing some of your power with your students as your supervisors should with you. Instead of apathetic and angry students and helpless teachers we will develop honest, thoughtful, intellectually competent, and socially responsible students and educators.

The difficulties you face are as real as I have explained, but the joys and satisfaction of a life lived to the fullest are worth it! In no other profession can you do so much for others and see the results of your efforts so quickly. You do change the world -- one student at a time.