ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Maxfield is coauthor of two New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I’ve been an educator for twenty-one years. I took a pay cut from a job in law enforcement because I saw teaching as a noble profession and as my calling to contribute to the development of good, productive citizens. I enjoy working with children and educators, even though it’s not always fun and games. I also want to be a positive role model and inspire at-risk students to go to college or at least finish high school.
Schools spend a lot of money hiring private companies to administer achievement tests and use those test scores against teachers. It seems many people blame all education problems on teachers and advocate that the solution to improving their child’s performance is to reduce teacher pay and spend money on research to measure and prove the low quality of teachers. They don’t consider that lifestyle, culture, language proficiency, vision, hearing, self-motivation, self-esteem, and parental support are huge influences on a student’s academic performance.
A teacher’s job is to teach. How can teachers reclaim their credibility and gain the public’s understanding of our specific duties?
Teaching is a noble profession. Although your question focuses on the frustrations you face, I’m sure you also achieve many triumphs that encourage children on their paths to success. Thank you for your service to our children, our families, our society, and our nation.
Being at the front lines of education, you are a witness to its failings as well as its successes. Academic performance isn’t where it needs to be, but it isn’t fair to blame teachers alone for these failings. Education is a societal challenge.
Now, in a respectful way, I’d like to ask you to examine some of your comments using a skill we call Master My Stories. This skill helps us avoid Clever Stories that prevent us from moving toward success. When we feel under attack, we tend to look for villains and someone to blame, even when it’s more productive to look for allies and common ground. We see this when members of the public blame teachers instead of recognizing them as allies. I think we also see this when teachers blame student testing, parents, and taxpayers instead of making them their allies.
Here are a few facts that could be the basis for common ground.
- We all want and need kids to succeed. Teachers, parents, taxpayers, and students themselves all want kids to complete their education and for that education to prepare them to contribute to society.
- We all know kids bring problems to the classroom. The factors you list in your question—lifestyle, culture, language proficiency, vision, hearing, self-motivation, self-esteem, and parental support—can either support or undermine a child’s success.
- We all know success is possible. There are wonderful examples of teachers, schools, and societies that have figured out significant parts of the solution. These solutions are varied and don’t yet point to a single “best way,” but they should certainly give us hope.
There are two ways to respond to your question. The first is to focus on what society and the education industry might do to improve educational success and respect for teachers. The second is to focus on what you can do when you feel frustrated or disrespected.
While all of us have ideas on improving education, I’ll focus here on what you might do when you’re feeling frustrated or disrespected. Here are three skills from Crucial Conversations that might come into play:
Start With Heart. Avoid getting sucked into a debate. Instead of responding to a provocation, stop and ask yourself, “What do I really want in the long-term for the kids, for the relationship, and for myself?” Then talk from your heart in a positive way. Explain what it is you really want, and then explain why it’s important to you.
For example, suppose someone says, “You teachers are all alike. All you care about is your pay.” Reflect for a second and ask yourself, “Is that true?” Of course not. What do you really want and why? Here’s a possible response: “What I really want is for these children to be successful and proud of their accomplishments. I want to be like Ms. Smith, a teacher I had when I was their age who pushed me to set high standards and helped me see what I could be. Does pay matter to me? Of course, but being a teacher isn’t about the pay. It’s about the kids. They are my priority.”
Master My Stories. When you feel attacked, it’s natural to see the attacker as your enemy. Instead, try to see the situation from the other person’s perspective. If you can see the situation through his or her eyes, you’re likely to see areas of common ground. Ask yourself, “Why might a reasonable, rational, and decent person do what this person is doing right now?”
For example, suppose the father of one of your students is accusing you of discriminating against his son. It will be tempting to jump into an angry denial, but ask yourself why a “reasonable, rational, and decent” father might have this perspective. He probably doesn’t have the full picture, and you may not either. At least he cares passionately about his son. This passion could be your common ground.
Mutual Purpose. Avoid getting too invested in your position or on any specific element of your status quo. Instead, keep your focus on your overall purpose, which is helping kids succeed. And try to help others become more flexible in their positions by helping them refocus on this same Mutual Purpose.
Teachers’ jobs are sure to change dramatically over the next few years. Wonderful innovations are taking place in education today and we’ll all need to support these evidence-based improvements. It’s hard to predict exactly how our children will be educated in the future, but we need to keep our eye on the prize—children who have the tools they need to succeed and to help us all be successful.
We completed an interesting study that focuses on teacher and educator burnout titled, Speak Up or Burn Out: Five Crucial Conversations that Drive Educational Excellence. If you’re interested in more tips and hints for improving educational performance, I encourage you to read it.