Adults who work with challenging youth sometimes feel that they have little impact in the face of the many environmental risks these young people face. However, the power of a caring adult to influence lives can sometimes be greater than that of family or peers, as shown by these student reports about adults whose specific actions had lasting positive (or negative) effects on them.
"What can I do? I only have them for a few hours each day. Their family or friends have more influence on them than I do. Sometimes I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle. How can I make a difference if their environment doesn’t change?"
This is a pretty common refrain I hear at workshops. I remember feeling the same way at certain points in my career as a teacher, especially when I would be talking with a student about a different way he or she could have handled a problem and the student would reply, “But my Dad told me to hit him," or “What’s the big deal? All my friends smoke." I’d think, “Why am I investing so much time in trying to influence this student’s life in one direction when it seems as though everyone else is exerting influence in the opposite direction?" At those times, I felt powerless, inadequate, and insignificant.
I can’t remember when I came to the realization that many of my teachers had had very dramatic and long-lasting effects on my life, sometimes influencing me more than my parents or friends. I think it might have been when I first read Haim Ginott’s (1976) book Teacher and Child. The opening sentence in the preface of the book was “Teachers are expected to reach unattainable goals with inadequate tools." I agreed with that! Ginott went on to say, “The miracle is that at times they accomplish this impossible task" (Ginnott, 1976, p. 15). I came to believe that if some of my teachers could have had so strong a positive or negative influence on me, then perhaps I could have a similar effect on my students.
Ginott’s philosophy, written when Ginott was a young teacher, is often posted in classrooms. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, here it is:
I have come to a frightening conclusion.
I am the decisive element that creates the climate.
It is my personal approach that creates the climate.
It is my daily mood that makes the weather.
As a teacher, I possess tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous.
I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.
I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.
In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.
Perhaps the hardest lesson I’ve ever had to teach my students I’ve also had to teach myself. It’s difficult to keep doing what you know and believe is right when the rest of the world seems to be doing the opposite. It’s hard to keep doing your job when it appears that others are not doing their part. It is hard to believe that anything you do matters when you appear to be going against the flow.
Affecting Lives – For Better or Worse
What things do we do that make a lasting impression on the students in our care? I teach a course in classroom management at Nazareth College. At the beginning of each semester, I ask my graduate students to think about a teacher who had the most positive impact and a teacher who had the most negative impact on their lives. I hope the following items might help you reflect on the power you truly do have to positively or negatively influence your students.
Teachers who made a negative impact
made fun of me in front of the class
stopped the class and embarrassed me; told me I was late in front of everyone in the class
told me I needed to be in the lower math group
said I was never going to become anything because I couldn’t read well at 7 years old
when I didn’t know the answer to a social studies question, put a dunce cap on my head
threw the music stand and music sheets at me because he thought I hadn’t practiced
took me out of relays because I trained in Brockport and not at MCC with her
was very insensitive to a personal problem/death in the family
said that I could never act because I was a big girl who tried to make myself smaller by the way I dressed and talked
used a baseball bat–hit it on a desk to get us to be quiet
called me a cheater in front of my reading group
told me I was stupid in math and that she was going to throw me to the Indians [savages] in the fifth grade
didn’t believe me – believed the kids who were lying
put down my dialect
told me I would get an A in the course if I did an extra assignment, which I did, but he then made up an excuse for not giving me the grade
put me out in the hall every day to learn my multiplication tables while the rest of the class moved on to long multiplication and division
would hit you with a ruler and yell at you for looking at the keys in typing class
stopped in the middle of grading my paper and wrote that the paper was getting worse
told me to stop sitting there like I got a 100 on my paper
told me college was not for everyone, and why didn’t I learn a trade (after I did terrible on my PSATs)
accused me of cheating when the kid next to me was
based seating chart on grades, and I was always last
taped my mouth shut
compared me to my siblings
always assumed I was doing something wrong; was judgmental
spanked me because I could not pause properly at the end of a sentence
spoke in a monotone and explained that she was focusing on the “smart" kids who could understand the complexities of the class
treated all kids the same. “We were all punished if one kid did something. For example, for talking in the hall, all kids wrote 100 times, do not talk"
yelled and screamed when students broke rules or had difficulties with subject matter.
Teachers who made a positive impact
made me feel it was OK to make a mistake
believed I had great ideas
told me I could succeed if I wanted to
had an art display of 10 pictures, and 8 of them were mine
told me I was special the way I was and she loved me for who I was
shared her love of learning and acknowledged our interests
told me my artwork was great and put my favorite piece in the Scholastic Art Exhibition
told me that I had the ability to do anything I wanted to
came to visit my sister when she was critically ill in the hospital
told me I was smart
talked to us like we were adults (sixth grade)
said I was a pleasure to have in the class
taught the Old Testament as if it were a soap opera (Catholic school)
took a physical conflict between two students and made our classroom into a courtroom for a week
gave me support and encouragement
always complimented the extra work I did
told me it was OK to look physically different from everyone else (I wore a back brace)
told me I was talented and believed in my abilities
told me I was a divergent thinker
listened to my stories
encouraged me to get on the stage in my dramatics class (#1 reason I became a teacher)
listened and talked to me about problems unrelated to school
came to my house to get apples from our apple tree for his wife to use in baking (made me feel special)
told me he learned from me
helped me through my parents' divorce
gave me choices
was flexible in terms of the rules.
When students feel powerless to affect their world, they assume the stance of a victim and say things such as, “Why should I bother, no one else is doing their job?" and “It won’t make a difference." I tell them that one way to ensure that others won’t do their job is if they don’t do theirs first. One way to ensure that you have no power in your own life is by not even trying. Teachers and adults in the helping professions might well take that advice for themselves. One way that I can ensure that I will have no effect on a child's life is to adopt a “why bother" stance. If I expect my students to keep trying when it’s hard, I have to model that type of behavior for them. Much of the research on the factors affecting self-esteem and youth success points to an attachment to at least one significant adult. I believe that as educators, we have the potential to be those adults of significance.
Ginott, H. (H76). Teacher and child. New York: Avon.
This feature: Hewitt, M.B. (1999). Do I make a difference. Reclaiming Children and Youth. Vol. 8 No. 2. pp 80-82