What We Become

If you have children, you have no doubt at some point saw or heard them do something that was exactly something you do, and which the child has picked up and begun doing themselves. Or, perhaps you have caught yourself doing something and then realized it was just like what your Mom or Dad do. You may have thought, “I’ve become my Mom,” or “I’ve become my Dad.” This is a natural result of spending long periods of time with people who are important to us.

The same thing happens with athletes and their coach, and it happens with students and their teacher. It is especially likely to happen to arts teachers, because, like parents, we spend years with the same kids, not just one year and then pass them along to the next grade level teacher. Our students have years to take on our habits and personalities. That is one reason why when you’re having an “off day,” the whole class seems to become out of sorts. The students are used to and comfortable to the way we usually present ourselves to them. It offers a measure of security to see us as we usually are; that is, as long as how we usually are is encouraging and comforting.

Our students are not selective when it comes to which traits of ours they put on and which ones they avoid. They assume our temperaments and mannerisms no matter what, so when those temperaments and mannerisms are negative, or stressed and anxious, the whole class becomes stressed and anxious, and when that happens, behavior problems are knocking at the door, and won’t wait for us to answer.

Most days, this is not a problem. We are calm and professional, and go about our business of teaching and managing student behavior in a positive and effective way. Marzano has written that these include establishing and communicating rules and procedures, having disciplinary interventions ready to go, cultivating positive teacher-student relationships, developing a positive mental set, teaching students to manage their emotions and behaviors, and getting every class off to a good start (Marzano, 2012). While all are important, the last three are of immediate interest.

Mental set is often referred to as mindfulness. It is a heightened sense of our situational surroundings and the intentional monitoring and control of our own thoughts and behaviors within the context of those surroundings. Because so much of how we respond to situations is automatic and unconscious, it takes discipline and practice to effectively intervene with those responses to make them more constructive and helpful. Creating a situational surrounding for our students that flows from our own effective practice mindfulness helps students stay within the boundaries of positive behavior and success at classroom tasks. When our own responses to the immediate environment in the classroom is positive, it eliminates troublesome elements from the surroundings in which the students must operate. When students habitually see us in a “good place,” they take on that goodness in their own mental set. At that point, they are “becoming their teacher.” When that happens out of our own mindfulness successes, we can be glad to see ourselves reflected in them, and know that we are having a positive influence on them beyond subject content.

Mindfulness is very closely related to teaching students to monitor and control their own emotions, which is in turn part of what Marzano calls “the student’s responsibility for management. Many schools have in recent years emphasized mindfulness training for teachers and mindfulness practices in classrooms with students. This, coupled with other strategies such as those developed by Yale Psychiatrist James Comer, have become the cornerstone of a relative new approach to classroom management. Once the teacher has created and maintained a positive situational surrounding, students still need to understand themselves and their peers enough to learn to interact positively. Practicing positive social behaviors is critical in developing a positive classroom environment, and has been linked by researchers to improved academic achievement.

Mindfulness is not the only component of developing good situational surroundings. Another important area is in how classroom rules and procedures are developed. Traditionally, these were created by the teachers and imposed on students in an authoritarian or teacher-centered way. The problem with this approach is that it sets up an adversarial relationship between teacher and students. This relationship tends to negatively escalate whenever disruptions or infractions occur. The student’s desire to behave in a certain way is pitted against the teacher’s desire for a rule to be followed. The student does not have a compelling reason based on self-interest to follow the rule. This is due at least in part to the fact that the student had nothing to do with writing the rule.

Most students do not want unruly classes, even as they persist in practicing behaviors that create unruly environments. While there are many reasons why a student will choose lot misbehave, one of them is that they simply do not have a reason not to. Good, interesting, relevant, stimulating, motivating instruction is the best assurance of minimizing classroom problems, but involving students in making the rules which will accomplish what the class agrees is the desired classroom environment is also important. To make this work, the students must trust the teacher so that they can honestly voice how they would shape the environment, and to create rules with which that they believe the teacher will consistently hold them accountable. If the teacher reverts back to his or her own “secret” rules, things will deteriorate quickly. There must be time allowed for students to learn to monitor themselves and their peers and to hold each other accountable in a calm and positive way. Then, the relevance of the instruction will come into play. Once students have taken responsibility for management, they will only be willing to continue to do so if the teaching and learning that the environment they have created allows to take place holds their interest.

If all that has been described has been established, then the students have taken on the mindfulness that was modeled by the teacher in the beginning, and which has by now been learned and practiced by the students. Because the students are taking responsibility for management, and because the teacher has created a positive situational surrounding, and is providing stimulating, engaging instruction, the teacher-student relationship is positive and strong. That teacher is now looking reflectively on his or her class and is happy that their students have become like them.

Marzano, R. J., Marzano, J. S., & Pickering, D. J. (2012). Classroom management that works: Research-based strategies for every teacher. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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