In my last letter, I wondered how teachers would respond to the questions I pose to my students to guide them through an exploration of their inner worlds. I wonder about this a lot because I believe that the deepest level of “inside” that we need to change in schools lies inside teachers. It’s there that we find the operating manual for how to build and sustain relationships. If relationships are indeed at the heart of education as you say in Creative Schools, then any change from the inside of schools must begin inside teachers.
It’s not where I started. Because I became a teacher by accident in apartheid-era South Africa, I wanted to change everything about what usually happened in classrooms! I wanted to do the opposite of everything that was done to me when I was a student. I started by refusing to beat students. But having the only classroom in the school where students were not beaten for failing tests or for “misbehaviour” got me into trouble with my colleagues.
I changed the way desks were set up. I changed the classroom walls, adding lots of colour and curtains with great poems handwritten on them. I asked students for anonymous feedback on my lessons. I changed the way I presented the curriculum.
When I moved from South Africa and began teaching in Canada, I continued to try to make my classrooms comfortable and inviting spaces to be, and I continued to innovate my teaching. But there was something that I could not seem to change. I could not seem to stop myself from getting angry with students sometimes. It usually happened when students started talking amongst themselves when I was running out of time to cover what I needed to before the bell rang.
I did not like getting angry. I would feel physically ill about it when I had calmed down and I would be haunted by the hurt look on the face of the student I had yelled at. I could see that my anger was also damaging relationships with students. I realized that if I really didn’t want to teach the way I had been, I’d have to do more than just rearrange the desks in my classroom, more than add bells and whistles to curriculum content.
And so began my journey into my inner world. I wanted to know what made me respond the way I did when students didn’t do what I wanted them to do. It would have been much easier to believe that my anger was caused by my students’ behaviour and attitudes but to my utter (initial) frustration, I learned that I was the only person who could possibly have flicked the anger switch in my brain. I learned that every time I got angry, there was a story I was telling myself that was simply not true. It went something like this:
If these students don’t stop talking now, I’m not going to be able to have enough time to finish this unit of work before the bell rings. Then I’m going to be behind for the next unit and will have to rush through, and that won’t be good teaching. Then I’ll be seen as a bad teacher and I’ll be a failure.
I learned that my anger was a way to fight against my core fear of failure.
I learned a lot about anger and its important purpose in our lives. And I learned how to repair relationships with students that I may have damaged when I got angry. And while I learned, I taught my students what I was learning. And we practiced what we learned together.
These days, when there is conflict in my classroom, we have a process to work through it, to understand it. It’s one of the first lessons I teach every semester, before the many stresses that can lead to conflict in the classroom arise. And when conflict does show up, we know that it’s an opportunity to learn more about each other, to strengthen our relationships, to build a stronger classroom community. I like to think we’re building a better world, one classroom community at a time. And at its core, isn’t that what education is for?
A journey into our inner worlds is not easy work. It’s enticing to avoid. It’s much easier to believe that if we just add enough technological tinsel to curriculum content that students will be more engaged. It may come as a surprise to many, but students are not as enamoured with technology as we may think. When given the chance, they much prefer a teacher’s attention than being left to their own devices. They’d much rather have a relationship with a teacher than with a piece of technology.
Which brings me back to where I began. Relationships are indeed at the heart of education, but knowing how to nurture and sustain them requires a journey into our inner worlds. That’s why I’m curious about how teachers would respond to the questions I pose to my students. I suspect that if teachers took time to consider these questions, change in schools would be inevitable, something that will arise naturally when what we discover in our inner worlds shapes what we do in the outer one.