Managing, Not Solving, Teacher Dilemmas (Part 1)

Because “dilemma” is so  often used as a synonym for “problem” and because these tensions over choices are constant in our personal and professional lives, I want to dig deeper into one facing all teachers be they teaching kindergarten or Advanced Placement courses. Whether they are new or experienced, whether they are white, African American, Latino, or a first generation college graduate in their family they inevitably face a core dilemma built into teaching when they have to perform both an academic and emotional role in teaching five-year olds or fifteen year-olds.

Let me unpack first what I mean by  dilemmas. I mean situations where a teacher, principal, superintendent, school board member has to choose between two or more competing and prized values. The choice is often hard because in choosing one ends up sacrificing something of value to gain a bit of satisfaction on another value. One learns to compromise in negotiating between two things they want very much.

Image result for teacher dilemmas

An example of a common dilemma might help. One that each of us faces is the personal/professional dilemma. You value highly your work and you value highly your family and friends. Those are the competing values. But your time and energy are limited. So you have to calculate the trade-offs between doing more of one and less of the other. You have to make choices.

You map out options: Put in fewer hours at work and more time at home. Or the reverse. Take more vacations and give up thoughts of career advancement. These and other options, each with its particular trade-offs, become candidates for a compromise that includes both satisfaction and sacrifice. If you do nothing–another option–you risk losing out with your family and friends or with your job.

This is not a problem that one neatly solves and moves on to the next one. It is a dilemma that won’t go away. It is literally built into your daily routine. There is no tidy solution; it has to be managed because the compromise you work out may unravel and there you are again, facing those unattractive choices again.

Within U.S. age-graded schools, whether they are high schools or elementary schools, whether schools are in neighborhoods where wealthy, middle class, or poor families send their children, two imperatives face all U.S. teachers: know your subject (the academic role) and know your students (the emotional role). Teachers value both roles. Yet these two roles, valued highly by teachers, place huge demands upon them. The academic role requires teachers to maintain a certain social distance from students while the emotional role requires teachers to get close to students. And here is the dilemma.

In the academic role, teachers teach first graders to read while upper-grade teachers teach Algebra 2 or Biology. They convey knowledge and cultivate cognitive skills of students. Then these teachers have to judge the degree to which students achieve mastery of each. Evaluating achievement requires evidence of performance and social distance in treating all students the same in applying criteria –even if a teacher admires a hard-working, serious student who keeps failing key tests. Emotion is not supposed to sway a teacher’s judgment of students’ academic performance.

But U.S. teachers are also expected to get close to students. Professors, mentors, and principals urge teachers to know their students as individuals, their background, interests, shortcomings and strengths. Why? Because that personal knowledge will help the teacher draw students into learning what the teacher teaches, in hanging in when subject matter just seems to be too hard to grasp. In displaying sincere interest in students, bonds of affection grow.  The relationship, the emotional ties between a teacher and her students, then, becomes the foundation for learning.

Balancing these competing roles and the values they represent, however, is hard to do. Many teachers only embrace the academic role: “My job is to teach science; my job is not to befriend my students.” Other teachers clasp the emotional role to their heart wanting so much to be closer to their students that they whisper to themselves: “Like me and you will like what I teach.” Finding the right mix is very difficult.

There are, of course, teachers who figure out how to balance these competing roles artfully by developing a classroom persona that is a distinct mix of both values. Their voices, gestures, clothes, verbal tics–all are part of the daily performance. They blend the academic and emotional roles into a mix that appeals to and prods students at the same time–they are both sandpaper and a pillow. Students, who can easily smell a fake, come to appreciate such teachers’ head and heart.

The next post examines a math teacher wrestling with this dilemma of roles as it affects the future of students and the role the teacher plays in the department. Such dilemmas seldom gain the attention they deserve inside or outside school.

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4 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

4 responses to “Managing, Not Solving, Teacher Dilemmas (Part 1)

  1. Chester Draws

    Professors, mentors, and principals urge teachers to know their students as individuals, their background, interests, shortcomings and strengths.

    I am expected to do this, and I work hard at it. But that need not involve any emotional attachment.

    I can tell you all my students shortcomings and strengths, as it relates to Maths — in exquisite detail if I’ve taught them for multiple years.

    Personal details, as such, are rarely relevant. They might be — such as students whose home life is so chaotic that they struggle to do homework — but we only need to know the relevant ones. There’s no use me knowing that they sing well, or that they hate English, and I don’t spend any time finding these things out.

    I know teachers that believe “Like me and you will like what I teach.”, but they are just plain wrong. They get no better results than teachers who focus on the subject first. On balance, the ones I’ve seen tend to be worse, because they lose so much time on irrelevant details, albeit their students like them. They also tend to burn out much faster, precisely because that emotional connection takes a severe toll. (My old schools of education was full of them — they love teaching, but they can’t can’t cope with the stress of it, because they over-invest.)

    The current mantra, as you repeat, is that there is a “balance” between the two, which allows you to hurt no-one by suggesting that their position is wrong. But you can get the balance wrong — and it’s avoiding the issue to not say where the balance should be.

    I would like to see some hard evidence that emotional connection yields better results, because all the evidence I’ve seen suggests it doesn’t. Teachers want to believe that it does, because teachers tend to be the sort of people who like personal emotional contact. But that isn’t evidence. IMO, it’s one of the reasons US education tends to suck — the emotional part is given far more stress than other countries, at the expense of teaching.

    I’m not suggesting some factory model, where teachers ignore their students as people. We need to learn about what makes them tick, so we can teach better. What we don’t need is any emotional burden as a result.

    We need to be professionals. Some jobs require a very good knowledge of human behaviour to do well, such as real estate agent, without any requirement of emotional attachment. They are different things.

    • larrycuban

      Your comments, Chester, continue to engage me. I appreciate your contrarian views–I mean that sincerely. You mention evidence that you’ve seen that counters emotional connections as yielding positive results–could you suggest a few that I might read? As I wrote in the post, it is a dilemma and the choice you made surely fits your beliefs about the supreme importance of content and skills in teaching. Your choice does not erase the fact that a dilemma exists. Thank you again for taking the time to comment.

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