A Special Relationship
In our last Newsletter we discussed how important relationships are when correcting student’s behaviour. This applies to all students but especially to those whose conduct is particularly challenging. When we think about relationships we generally consider a transactional connection between individuals, transactional because we expect to contribute to that association as much as we anticipate it being a source to address our needs.
However, relationships between the teacher and student does not have a ‘transactional’ component, it is a one-way process. In general, teachers harmonize with parents providing the age-appropriate support for each child. A healthy parent provides support for the child as they learn to behave in a way that allows them to eventually learn to get their needs met in their environment. In early childhood the parent does almost everything for the child, as the child masters a behaviour they move on to a more sophisticated behaviour. Eventually, in the teenage years the child will demand independence from the parent and if that process has been successful this will be a smooth transition. Those of you who have had teens will definitely understand that the kids think they are ready for the world long before you do but things generally work out.
The same transition is observed in our school yard. Kindergarten kids need a lot of personal support as they learn. The teacher provides plenty of encouragement as they face new challenges. As they develop, that control is gradually passed back to the child and by the time they graduate from school, if we have been successful the students are independent learners.
This is all well and good however, for the kids that come from abusive families that ordered progress does not exist. From the previous Newsletter and one on relatedness (21st October 2019) we have discussed the problems for those kids when they are in a ‘school environment’ that clashes with the one in which they developed their behaviour. They have to start again – in regards to behaving, they become as needy as any infant. This will require the teacher to ‘parent’ a child that although physically may appear to be close to maturity will be undeveloped in their behaviour. This demands a special quality in the teacher, to treat a threatening, abusive teenager like a treasured infant is a challenge and that is what I want to discuss in this essay.
I believe that humility, on the part of the teacher is the distinctive quality of the relationship that best describes what is required to support these kids, and in fact all kids. We have time and again pointed out that consistent, structured consequences for behaviour is the key to making a change and we have also reinforced the reality that this process takes a lot of time. To hang in with these kids takes a lot of inner strength but this is not to be confused with self-confidence. Humility is a quiet confidence in your ability as well as an acceptance that you don’t know everything.
This adoption of humility is covertly at odds with the current mentality of modern management practices which regrettably dominates teacher training. Let us explain, the focus on T&D in NSW at least is on the development of leadership skills. I’m on record as saying that leadership is a quality that emerges to address the problems of the environment in which it exists; it has a ‘bottom-up’ quality. To train novice teachers for leadership roles requires a ‘top-down’ approach where proficiency comes not from experience but from ‘a book’. My concern is that when you successfully learn the lessons from theory you are captivated by its narrative. The belief you are now qualified is reinforced by your supervisors which develops a misplaced degree of self- confidence.
In our system this self-confidence is regarded as a desirable characteristic and an asset when seeking employment or promotion. The competitive nature of the organisation requires teachers to sell themselves through resumes or interviews. The result is that we can easily believe we have the characteristics outlined in our training and revealed in any application. We feel like we are experts and we become susceptible to what is known as the Dunning-Krüger paradox, that is we falsely assess our performance. The work that underpins this paradox has shown that poor performers in a task over estimate their ability, that is over confidence correlates with under achievement. Meanwhile, those who have a degree of self-doubt about how they perform achieve much more than others. This is particularly so when dealing in a social enterprise like teaching.
Humility is underpinned by this modesty about your abilities but also your real sense of worth as a person. There is a reassurance when you accept that you have flaws but also gifts to share. Humility is the opposite to toxic shame where, if you make a mistake it’s because you are a mistake. With humility when you make a mistake that’s OK you can learn from it and move on. This allows you to be grounded in reality, valued as a human and able to provide a model for the students you teach. Humility is its own reward.
Your humility will be a gift for your colleagues and importantly, those you teach. If we rely on the external validation of our abilities, the T&D courses and the creation of our resumes, if challenged we are compelled to defend ourselves. To admit that we are unsure is to reject the process that produced our self-confidence. To retain our sense of expertise we must reject any idea of failure. One of the problems is that those who defend their behaviour in the face of evidence that confirms an error lose their credibility while those who publicly question their actions endear themselves to their contemporaries.
Humility is essential to having a healthy relationship with all students but none more than those damaged kids we are focused on. It allows us to really engage with them when things are difficult. Because we are unsure we are more willing to listen to them, how often do we feel the need to butt into their conversation to tell them what to do. When we really listen to them we may find some new information that will help us both deal with the situation but more importantly when we really listen we are confirming their value to us.
When they see us admit we are unsure, that we will seek help we are letting them know that we are not perfect and that’s alright, and they get permission to make mistakes without being a mistake – never under estimate the power of this.
To paraphrase Saint Vincent de Paul, wanton self-confidence is nothing but a lie while humility is truth. For kids who have a history of abuse, an adult who embodies truth provides that parent that was missing in their early years of development.