Teaching is a “long game.” We are in it for the long haul, and naturally, we want to be certain that we are paying attention to the signs and signals that tell us we are on the right track. Even though we may have bad days or go through tough patches in our work, we still seek reassurance that we are focused on the right things and remain on a path to success.
Of course, there are many paths to success, and there are various ways in which our attention and focus can become distracted. If fact, there are several consistent indicators that trouble likely lies ahead. Here are five signs that your teaching may be headed “off the rails.”
You are more concerned about whether students like you than whether they are challenged. It is only natural that we want our students to like us, and, yes, we need to develop strong, positive relationships with them. After all, relationships are the precursor to learning. Yet, while having good relationships can lead to learning, they are not themselves the point of learning. When we become preoccupied with whether students like us, we risk losing our focus on challenging and nudging students to learn, even when it may be uncomfortable and hard. In fact, during students’ most difficult learning challenges, they may not feel as though they like us very much. The good news is that once students find their way through tough times, they often respect and value their relationship with us even more.
Your highest priority is being in control. Of course, we cannot manage a classroom that is constantly out of control. Student safety and learning depend on our ability to maintain an appropriate level of organization, focus, and cooperation. However, when control becomes our dominant focus and an inordinate amount of our time and attention are given to evoking compliance, learning and relationships suffer. On the other hand, when we create conditions where students are invited and supported to commit to their learning and where respect and trust are present, our worry about control can retreat into the background.
You believe that you are the smartest person in the room. While we may have more education and life experience than our students, there is still a great deal they can teach us. We do not have a corner on ideas and insights. In fact, the unexpected or even seemingly off-topic questions students ask can reflect surprising levels of intelligence and insight and open doors to new learning for everyone, including us. The fact that some of our students have high levels of intellectual capacity and may go on to make significant contributions to society is cause for celebration and appreciation, not competition or intimidation.
You allow the bad behavior of some students to go unchallenged. Students want assurance that they will be treated fairly. They want to know that the standards of behavior to which they are held apply to everyone, and they watch carefully to see if the rules we set will be applied equally. If some students are given special treatment or are allowed to engage in behavior that is not tolerated when others demonstrate that behavior, feelings of resentment can quickly build, and accusations of unfairness will soon follow. Of course, some students may face special circumstances that require more variation in how we respond. Within the bounds of privacy, we need to help classmates understand the circumstances when reasonable adaptations are necessary.
You are the last person to hear when something happens in students’ lives. When something out of the ordinary happens in the life of our students—good or bad—they are often quick to share their news with those they trust, which should include us. Similarly, other students who are aware of the news often rush to tell us. If students are not motivated to share this type of news with us, we need to pay attention. When students know that we care, they want to let us know what happens in their lives so that we can share in the celebration or mobilize the support we can provide. If we are the last to hear, it is time to figure out why.
Teaching provides us with amazing opportunities to have an impact on the lives of our students. However, we need to be sure that our expectations and behavior preserve and protect our influence and keep our teaching “on the rails” and in a good place.