The Challenges of Teaching

There has generally been little consideration of teachers’ psycho-social readiness to teach and, indeed, of students’ psycho-social readiness to learn.  It appears to be the case that not many professionals – not just teachers – are conscious of the fact that their individual interior worlds hugely influence their professional practice.  The truth is that personal effectiveness determines professional effectiveness and affectiveness is the bedrock of effectiveness.  Current programmes for training of managers put personal effectiveness on the top of the training agenda. Sadly, some teachers and managers – albeit unconsciously – can act as if teaching and managing is a series of instrumental actions that have little or nothing to do with relationships and the wellbeing of individual students or employees and, indeed, of individual teachers and managers themselves.

Speaking at the recent Irish Primary Network (IPPN) conference, Director Sean Cottrell said that in the training of teachers academic ability is just one factor and that interpersonal skills are vital to cope with the complexity of the modern classroom and, indeed, staffroom.  He also expressed concern that new teachers were not being trained to effectively communicate with parents, teach children with special education needs and understand and resolve students’ challenging behaviours in and out of classroom.  Worrying results of a survey of 60 teachers reported by Sean Cottrell is that one in five young teachers felt poorly supported in the development of personal effectiveness and less than one in three felt well supported.

Maturity has nothing to do with age, status, education, gender, power, wealth or profession but when teachers associate their importance with such factors they pose a considerable threat to students and, indeed, themselves.

Teacher training courses need to provide safe opportunities for trainees to examine closely their own inner lives and how they relate to others in different settings – not just the classroom, but also family, staffroom and community.  When this examination (ironically, the most important examination of all and the one that most individuals do not sit) does not occur, major blocking of human potential happens and human misery is perpetuated.

There are fundamental realities to teachers being affective and effective in relating with students, parents and colleagues:

  • You are always in relationship
  • Each relationship is always a couple relationship
  • In a class of say thirty students, you have thirty different relationships to manage
  • When as a teacher you view a class as a single entity rather than a collection of
  • individuals you miss a fundamental and critical issue – each student in a class responds to you in a unique way
  • The reality is that each child in a particular family has as different mother and a different father, each student in a particular class has a different teacher and each employee in a workplace has a different manager/employer and so it is for all other couple relationships within social, political, religious and educational settings
  • The fundamental motivating factor behind all relationships – in homes, classrooms and elsewhere – is the innate need to belong unconditionally 
  • When students’ spontaneous and real efforts to belong are not responded to they creatively find substitute ways to gain a sense of belonging.  These substitute ways are seen as challenging behaviours and can seriously disrupt the order and attention that is needed in a classroom for teaching and learning to occur
  • Conflict then arises in classrooms when unconditionality is not present.  However, conflict, rather than being the enemy, is the ally that attempts to attract the two individuals (teacher and student) in the relationship back to the essential quest for unconditional acceptance and understanding
  • There is no substitute for the real experience of unconditional belonging – this is true for both students and teachers
  • The necessity of a whole-school approach to creating a safe and dynamic class and school ethos
  • The enrolling of students’ cooperation
  • Engagement in active listening and direct and clear communication
  • Responsiveness to failure and success as opportunities for further progress in learning and teaching
  • Maintenance of definite and clear boundaries around position as head of classroom
  • Understanding and being proactive in response to the troubling behaviours of students
  • Being open to seeking support and help when you are struggling with managing students’ challenging behaviours
  • Continuous reflection on your own level of personal effectiveness

Governing students requires a depth of face-to-face training equivalent to that required of knowledge of subjects and creative presentation of a subject.  In many ways the ‘how’ of teaching has not had the same emphasis as the ‘what’ of teaching, resulting in many teachers struggling with teaching and students struggling with learning. 

Dr. Tony Humphreys, Consultant Clinical Psychologist/Author and National/International Speaker.  His book with co-author Dr. Helen Ruddle, Relationship, Relationship, Relationship, Heart of a Mature Society is relevant to today’s column.