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Teachers: The Small Things Really Do Matter

I was recently at a gathering run by the Aspen Institute on the State of Race in America.  One of the points made repeatedly was that we often act in ways that are racially insensitive without realizing it – despite despising racism and seeking equality.

We have subconscious racial biases, even when we deny their existence. And these biases affect what we do and say; they affect what we think and what we write. In short, eliminating racism is not simply about law-making and law enforcement; it is about figuring out how to change our minds at their deepest levels.  And, for the record, that assumes that everyone wants to eliminate racism, not exactly a statement that is shared by all if we are being honest.

I raise this example because, as with curbing racism, I think the overwhelming majority of teachers care about their students and want to enable them to learn and thrive. Yes, there is burnout. Yes, there are poor teachers. But most teachers believe in their capacity to improve the lives of their students and to help these students find a pathway to success.

But there is often a schism between what teachers believe and what they say to and do with their students. And teachers may be unaware that things they utter in the classroom in passing to one or more students, and actions they take in class to propel learning, affect students in ways these teachers do not realize and do not intend.  For these purposes, let’s assume there is no malice; there is no effort to hurt children’s feelings; there is no desire to create sub-optimal learning environments.

Two recent examples were told to me. They make my blood boil, and not just because I know the children and their parents. It is because these examples are not unicorns. They occur with more frequency than can be justified on any scale we use to measure teacher behavior.  That’s what’s so scary; we have unintended consequences of well-meaning teachers that affect children for days, weeks, months and perhaps even years.

Emily was going to orientation for kindergarten. She went with her friend and neighbor, Kayla. Kayla actually knew the kindergarten teachers, having been with them in a summer program and having seen them in her home for dinner because of family friendships.

During the orientation, these kindergarten teachers kept complimenting Kayla. “Well done, Kayla.”  “Very good, Kayla.”  “Excellent work, Kayla.”  When Emily returned home and her mother asked her about orientation at her new school, Emily just replied, “Why do the teachers like Kayla more than me? They don’t even know me.”  Yipes.  That’s not how to start kindergarten.  I suspect the teachers had no idea that their compliments to Kayla left other children feeling left out.

Then, there was a sixth-grade class where Allie was a student. She was not only a good student but also a terrific athlete. But she was new at this middle school and, as we all know, pre-teen friendships are hard to establish. Cliques and in-crowds are commonplace.  The teacher crafted a thoughtful exercise for groups of students to work on during class.  She turned to the class and said, “Please break into groups of five and then solve the presented problem together.”

As you can imagine, not all the kids were included in a group. Allie was left out, as were two other children. Allie wasn’t a part of the group that she thought contained her friends.  When Allie got home and her mother asked her about her day in school, she replied, “Why do I get left out?”  When her mother listened to the story, she asked if Allie had joined the other two left-out children.  Allie replied, “Yes, I went to them but no one came for me.”

I kept thinking: how hard is it for the teacher to form the groups or have the kids count off by 5’s or by last names – from A to D go here – or something non-controversial? Not hard at all.

Here’s my point: None of the teachers would have wanted the reactions just described.  Likely, none of the teachers were even aware that what they had done impacted two and likely more students.  Like racism, we sometimes behave in ways that are not conscious but that have a profound, lasting impact.

Teacher self-awareness would be beneficial. So would better monitoring or videoing and critiquing of teachers, all in the spirit of improvement as opposed to criticism.  Professional development sessions with scenarios or tabletop exercises also would help, again, in the spirit of seeing what is often unseen even by the best-intended teachers, present company included.

Meanwhile, small, unintended words or behavior in a myriad of contexts – of which school is but one –  are deeply affecting a generation of young students. Time to hit pause and reflect on what we say and do in our work, in our schools and in our homes. Unintended, seemingly innocuous statements can and do have lasting negative impacts.

And, for the record, my blood is still boiling over what happened to Emily and Allie and all children for whom the experience of education is not what it could and should be.

Karen Gross is an author and former president of Southern Vermont College.

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