The Instinct to Teach

I had an illuminating experience with my advanced debate classes this past month. I led an extended discussion over three weeks focused on the following question: What is the ideal classroom cell phone policy for the average high school classroom? If you don’t mind, maybe you could take thirty seconds and think about what comes to mind. You might find the exercise illuminating as well.

I can tell you what came to mind for my students. For two weeks they came up with and debated the merits of all sorts of policies. Phones get handed in at the beginning of class. Phones can only be used in emergencies. Phones can be used so long as they don’t disrupt the class. Phones aren’t allowed in school at all. Phones must stay face down on the desk unless special permission is given by the teacher. Phone use would be regulated on an ad hoc basis by the teacher. One of the stranger policies was that phones would have to be suspended above the students’ desks so that students would have to use them awkwardly above their heads where everyone could see the screens. Some of the policies seemed more reasonable and others less. Some policies seemed more enforceable, and others less. However, in my estimation, all of the policies were missing an important element.

Education research indicates that the biggest variable in the classroom is the teacher. No one has more ability to influence the outcomes in a classroom, and certainly no one has more power to create positive outcomes in the classroom than the teacher. School policies can make some difference. Student attitudes and situations at home can have a strong negative impact. But positively impacting the student experience in the classroom is largely the province of the teacher. Why? Because the teacher has the most powerful superpower in the classroom. The teacher, unlike any other person, has the power to teach the class. And it turns out that teaching, especially good teaching, is really effective! The biggest problem with all of the cell phone policies my students came up with was that they ignored the power of good teaching. Their policies were all restrictive policies that began from the premise that the most powerful element to change behavior in a classroom is the rules, when the truth is that the classroom element that has the most potential to change behavior is the teacher teaching. Especially if that teacher is skilled and believes deeply in his or her ability to influence outcomes in the classroom.

Upon pointing this out to students I indicated that their framing of the discussion had produced, to this point, only restrictive policies. Moving the discussion forward, I asked the students a variation on the question. What is the optimal constructive classroom cell phone policy for the average high school classroom? The answers returned were entirely different.

The policies included the following. Teachers would have a conversation with students at the beginning of the year to have the class collectively decide on a phone policy. Teachers would create a presentation to help students develop healthy phone habits for the classroom and life in general. Teachers would run a simulation that demonstrated how difficult it is to be successful while distracted by a phone. Teachers would ensure that no more than 15% of any class is devoted to lecture. Teachers would plan frequent activities that allowed students to use their phone positively. Teachers would help students interact with apps that are educationally beneficial. They were the sort of policies that I would be interested in implementing into my classroom. As a matter of fact, many students were surprised when I told them that they were currently experiencing my constructive classroom policy on cell phones.

This is not to say that the restrictive policies were useless or bad. In fact many of them may have been good candidates to be used in concert with constructive policies. But, if I had to say which set of policies was more likely to produce positive results, the answer is easy.

So what type of policies did you think up when I asked at the beginning of the article. Restrictive or constructive? I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer is restrictive policies only. They are the policies that my students initially came up with. But the question is why? Why the impulse to try to change classroom outcomes through restrictive policies? The answers to that question offer some very meaningful insight into successful teaching.

The Teacher-Student Relationship

When asked, students gave many answers as to why they only came up with restrictive policies at first. Many of them can be summed up in saying that the teacher-student relationship is very often conceived as adversarial in nature. When we imagine the average teacher and the average student, we imagine that the teacher wants the students to learn the subject and the students want to goof off, disrupt the classroom, and generally do whatever they want. And, if this is true, restrictive policies are the best option. You make rules against the things that students want to do, but should not do, because there is no better way to convince them to engage and learn.

However, great teachers can tell you that it is not the case that teachers and students are destined to have an adversarial relationship because, at a basic level, they want different things. Rather, they can tell you that humans are wired for and want growth just like the teacher wants to see them grow. Most frequently, disruptive students are bored, scared, unconvinced that the things they are learning matter, or feel that the teacher does not respect them or is not invested in their growth. As a result, great teachers recognize that teaching is real work, earning trust is real work, really engaging students is real work, convincing students that a subject matters is real work, and really trying to understand students is real work. But they don’t feel at constant war with their students. They begin from the proposition that their students want to learn and then figure out how to fulfill that desire for their students.

On the other hand, teachers who bore their students with lectures or irrelevant or insufficiently challenging activities don’t respect the agency of their students, don’t connect the students with the deeper meaning of their subject, or don’t address the fears and insecurities that keep students from succeeding may imagine students as just not wanting to learn the things they want to teach.

Does Teaching Work?

Another reason that restrictive policies can seem so attractive is if a person doesn’t believe or has not considered how powerful a tool teaching is. So, let me make the case. On the MetaX dataset (the largest comprehensive dataset on educational research in the world), if you sort all studied effects by how likely they are to positively impact student outcomes, fifteen of the top twenty effects are teacher attributes, teacher strategies, or the type of curriculum a teacher chooses to use. Clearly, good teaching has a stronger positive impact than student attributes, school choices, family attributes, etc.

Another way to think about this argument is presented in this educational presentation by John Hattie. In this presentation he points out that it is far too low a standard to focus on teaching methods that improve student achievement because about 95% of studied practices in schools improve student achievement. In other words, it is essential to focus on what works best, because almost anything a teacher does will work to some extentHis point is an important one. It really isn’t good enough to prove that students got better in your class. The bar has to be significant growth. But an interesting byproduct of the argument is the idea that teaching just works. I know it doesn’t always seem like it in the moment, especially when students are struggling to accomplish everything you want them to accomplish, but teaching just works. Teaching works so well that even teachers that use relatively poor strategies help students grow. It takes a teacher using exceptionally ill-conceived practices like depending wholly on lecture, corporal punishment, or frequently holding students back a grade in order to harm student learning.

So, if you don’t believe that teaching works, then restrictive policies make the most sense. Punishments are the only tools that will work.

Teacher Efficacy

All of this comes down to one of the most important issues in education. One of the most powerful influences on student outcomes is teachers who believe that they have the ability to change outcomes for students. This is not just my experience, it is a well-researched, evidence-based assertion. These teachers pay attention to students. They try to understand what they are going through and why they are struggling. They believe in their own ability to find solutions that will aid students. They understand that students get to make their own choices, but they also understand that students who make poor choices are often doing so for reasons that the teacher can influence. So when these teachers see a problem in the classroom, their first instinct isn’t restrictive policies that lay out what students are not allowed to do. Their first instinct is to ask themselves how they can teach better and better teach the student to succeed.

That is the point of this article. When you face difficult circumstances as a teacher, what is your first instinct? Is it to throw your hands up and declare that children who don’t want to learn just won’t learn? Is it to layer rules over rules to make sure that children act the way you want them to? Or is your first instinct to teach? I argue that this is what it means to be a teacher in your heart: to believe in the power of teaching and to use that power to benefit children. To be a teacher in your heart is to make teaching your first instinct.