It’s a large room, too big for the number of people meeting here today. I am standing in front of a group of twenty five teachers who are new to my school. Some of them have taught elsewhere, some are first year teachers. Their ages range from early twenties to mid-fifties, some have been teaching for years, some are right out of college. There is a mix of idealism and world-weariness in this room. They are here as part of the school’s induction program - every teacher new to this school goes through two years of support and an introduction to the school, the community and the student population.
In theory, it’s a very good idea. As I’m looking around today, however, I can see that teachers are tired, and there is a sense of resigned boredom, even resentment on their faces. They have left their classes in the hands of substitutes for a whole day (generally an unhappy notion for a teacher) and most of them would much rather be in their own classrooms than here. A number of them have that “long gaze” that I recognize as institutional malaise.
I am here as a staff developer, a role that frees me up to work with other teachers. Throughout the morning, other staff developers have been presenting different aspects of the issue of classroom management. What I have observed about the induction process is that has been heavy on the shoulds, the rules, the constraints, the pressures. I am here to talk about something else.
“What I’m noticing is that the conversation so far has been about supporting the students, but also about controlling them. I would like to shift our attention for a while towards the emotional realities of your students. I would argue that being aware of their reality is an essential component of being an effective teacher.
“So let me start with the ideas of an educational psychologist, William Glasser, who describes five fundamental needs of all people. He says that for us to lead a fulfilling life, we need to feel safe, to have a sense of power over our lives, to have freedom to make choices, to experience a sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves, and to have fun.” As I’m talking, I write the five attributes on a board. “When any of those needs aren’t met, people become unhappy, frustrated, depressed, or angry; unwanted consequences occur. And it doesn’t have to be all of them not being met - even one missing need can do it.
“Let’s take a minute and see where that takes us. Imagine yourself in a situation where you are truly powerless. Decisions are being made that affect you, and you have no say in them. Has that ever happened to you in your life? Possibly even in this building?” Finally, there is a trace of lightness in the room - several people even laugh at that one.
“So stop, look at this list, and conjure up a time in your life where several of these needs were not being met, where you didn’t feel safe, or felt no sense of belonging, for instance. Really try to remember the experience in depth. Then, I’d like you to share that memory with the people sitting at your table; tell them your reaction, how you felt, how you acted as a result of the situation.”
After a few minutes of conversation, I ask them to decide among themselves which story to share with the whole group. One by one, a person at each table describes their experiences.
This is Mark’s first year at our school, but he had taught for eight years in the Chicago system. He is a tall, powerfully built man in his mid-thirties. With his upright posture and strong voice, he commands everyone’s attention.
“In my last school,” he says, “I had a department chair who was a control freak - he ran the Math department like a little dictator. After two years of his leadership, the morale in our department was in the toilet. We were told we had to get our test scores up by twenty percent over the last year’s scores, and none of us knew how to do that except by teaching to the test, really telling students what was going to be on it and preparing them endlessly, which they hated. He made it clear that some of us were going to be given terrible schedules and have the most difficult classes assigned to us if we couldn’t meet his expectations.
“The thing that got to me, though, was that he began a program of dropping in to observe our classes unannounced. He would sit in the back, take copious notes, even talk to the students privately while we were teaching. Then he would leave without a word or any sign of acknowledgment, and he would never give us any feedback from those visits. Everyone started to dread those visits.”
“And what was your reaction - how did you act in response to this chair.”
“Well, all of us hunkered down. We figured out what we had to do to look good and to get our test scores up. But I stopped working as hard to be creative and I definitely didn’t put as much time into all the volunteer things I used to do. I started doing exactly what I had to and nothing more. I just felt beat up all the time. And the teachers’ lounge conversations became one continuous bitch session - pardon my French.” He looked around sheepishly. It’s clear this is an emotional topic for him.
“And which of the five fundamental needs do you think were missing for you in that situation?”
He looks at the board. “I didn’t feel safe - we all knew there could be reprisals if we complained or didn’t fall into line. I certainly lost the sense of being part of something bigger - our department fractured into little pieces, and there was a lot of bitterness around the perception that some teachers were the chair’s favorites and were treated better. So belonging went out the window. And I can definitely say I wasn’t having much fun.
“But I’m not sure about the other two. What is the difference between feeling powerless and the loss of freedom?”
“It can be confusing, because they are often missing at the same time, as they were in your situation. But I think it’s worth seeing the difference.
“Here’s how I think about it. We all live in situations where there are people who have power over us because they make decisions that affect us. We feel powerless when the decision makers don’t listen to our point of view while making their decisions. If you feel you have a voice, that your perspective is being taken into account, then even if a decision is not what you wanted, you at least feel like you have been heard. So we feel powerless when we have no voice.
“Having freedom, on the other hand, means being able to make meaningful choices, to be able to steer your own path. All of you, for instance, have the freedom to decide what you are going to do when you walk into your classrooms tomorrow.
“So Mark, I would say you were missing both the sense of power and freedom, because your chair was definitely not interested in listening to his teachers and your decisions about how to teach in your own room were being seriously constrained. So that makes it oh for five in your case - you were batting zero in the needs department. Not a pretty picture.”
Several other people described situations in which they felt powerless or unsafe. One person had left her church after a bitter division polarized the congregation - she felt that the community she had felt part of ceased to exist, and she had to withdraw with a deep sense of loss and regret. Several had had to contend with abuses of power by their bosses or a sense of anonymity in their workplace.
“Now I want you to do something that may be difficult. I want you to imagine being a student walking into one of your classes. Pick an actual student, preferably one that is struggling or doesn’t like school all that much. Now look at the list of human needs again through his eyes, and ask yourself how many of them are being fulfilled.
“I know this makes all of us uncomfortable. None of us likes to think of our classes this way. But it is truly what many students experience, no matter how good you are as a teacher, no matter how warm or charismatic you may be. So let’s take a moment and think about ways in which your students do have one or more of these needs fulfilled. Again, talk to the people at your table, and see if you can summarize one or two strategies you use or classroom structures that help students get these needs met.”
After a few minutes of conversation that was distinctly less energetic than the last round, a few people had ideas to share.
Angela, a new hire in the History department, talked about her spending a few minutes at the start of every class to allow students to talk to each other about whatever they wanted. She felt that the socializing was a worthwhile investment in helping them feel comfortable. Several other teachers responded that they were already hard pressed to cover everything they needed in the forty-three minutes of a class period without losing time to idle conversation. Another teacher, John, said he made sure that students knew he was available before and after school to help them with their work for his class. Mark said he did that too, but that he wasn’t sure which of the five needs on the board that was addressing.
It was clear, after a few more minutes, that it was much easier to find examples of having their own needs unmet than it was to create solutions to the unmet needs of their own students. There was an uncomfortable sense of being stuck with a problem that had no solution.
“I apologize for putting all of you in this position - I know it is a troubling thing to look at, and there are no easy answers to how to fulfill the needs of your students. But there are ways to do it, and unless you recognize that it is a serious issue, you are unlikely to try to find those ways.
“Above all, having heard about your reactions to the situations you described, it should be easier to understand some of the otherwise inexplicable behaviors of our students. When they don’t get these needs met, they respond with anger, resentment, sullen withdrawal, just as you did in your stories, just as any reasonable human being would. These are the symptoms of students who are not doing well in school. I think it’s worth considering that this is a big part of why they’re not doing well in school.
“So the real question is, how do we incorporate strategies as often as possible that fulfill these needs for our students? How do we recognize it when they are missing? And how do we respond when we discover they are missing? That is a large topic, and we can only start the conversation today.”