When it comes to learning about us, students learn as much from what they see as what we say. They learn innumerable lessons about us—and how adults and professionals behave—through our actions, interactions, and reactions.
We can try to counsel, coach, and convince students to adopt important values and engage in positive social behaviors, but as attentively as students may appear to listen, what they see in our attitudes and interactions typically carries far more influence on what they will believe and, by extension, adopt. Unless we demonstrate the values and practice the behaviors that we want our students to demonstrate, we are likely to be disappointed.
Every day, we give our students opportunities to observe and learn from what they see and experience in our presence. Let’s examine five common circumstances in which our attitudes and behaviors are scrutinized and which can present our students with lessons about learning, relationships, and life.
How we handle interruptions, regardless of the source, sends a message about our temperament, flexibility, and readiness to understand the needs and issues of others. Interruptions to our instruction and class routines are inevitable. Some interruptions are predictable, such as daily announcements. Some come without warning, such as summoning a student to the office or reminding everyone of a change in schedule. Other interruptions can result from unexpected events within the classroom or a knock on the classroom door. In our responses, are we focused on our own needs and priorities, or are we quick to respond accordingly and provide support? Do we readily shift our attention, or are we more likely to roll our eyes, or otherwise express frustration, while we wait to return to our own agenda?
How we treat colleagues shows students our generosity and collaborative spirit, in addition to our respect and valuing of others. We may not think that students pay attention to our interactions with other members of the staff. However, they are constantly watching and learning. When we are quick to help, pass along important information, or share materials and equipment, students see our willingness to give and to collaborate. Additionally, but no less importantly, how we treat non-licensed staff members, such as custodians, paraeducators, secretaries, and volunteers, also sends a message to our students about our character.
How we treat other students communicates the depth of our commitment to provide equitable and even-handed support, encouragement, and acceptance. Not surprisingly, students also closely watch how we relate to other students. They notice how we treat students who experience learning challenges, may need to navigate language barriers, or come from difficult economic circumstances or from a different culture or race. Do we consistently and equitably provide the support they need to build their skills and experience success? Additionally, students notice whether we place our relationship on the line with students who engage in challenging behavior, or if we separate the behavior of which we do not approve from our opinion and treatment of the student. Of course, they also are watching to see if some students regularly receive preferential treatment without an apparent reason. How we treat some students in our classes often serves as a measuring stick for other students to judge our fairness and imagine the implications for them should they find themselves in similar circumstances.
How we respond to questions tells students about our ability and choice to be patient, emotionally mature, tactful, and professional. Questions can play a variety of roles in our experiences with students, but they matter regardless of the age and maturity of our students. Our youngest students may have endless questions, and they can try our patience. Older students may ask fewer questions, but the questions they do ask can be difficult and uncomfortable to answer; they may test our tact and sensitivity. Some questions can even be calculated to intentionally “press our buttons.” Yet, those, too, allow us to demonstrate our emotional stability and our professionalism.
How curious we are can show our students our willingness to analyze, investigate, and pursue the connections, possibilities, and significance of what is presented to us. Our days are filled with stimuli that can stir our curiosity. Students say and do surprising things. Serendipitous events can stir our emotions or leave us smiling or rapt with wonder. We may be engaged in a planned lesson or structured discussion when a spontaneous observation or connection surfaces that begs to be explored. What happens next is of the utmost importance. We can choose to ignore what happens “off script,” or we can choose to pause and explore those sources of curiosity. The nature, strength, and richness of our curiosity can make a lasting impression on our students; these can be the “teachable moments” our students will treasure. They can stimulate an interest that grows into a student’s passion. Of course, our excitement in not only showing our own curiosity, but also sharing it, can give students permission to imagine, explore, and appreciate the unusual, unexpected, and unexplained.
The most powerful lessons our students are likely to learn are the ones we teach without a lesson plan or clear intention. Our choice to be a model for students to emulate will provide rich lessons for them to learn. Of equal importance, doing so allows us to create a more successful and satisfying environment within which to practice our profession.