Talking about teaching

The greatest challenge of being a teacher is managing students’ interpersonal relationships. Likewise, the most difficult task of a school leader is managing teachers’ interpersonal interactions. While it is okay for children to squabble, misunderstand, and fight, it is worrying when teachers engage in these immature responses toward each other. Additionally, it is easier to educate students to develop healthier relationships compared to teachers. Adults seem to be more set in their ways. This is particularly observed in their emotional responses to other adults.

Teacher relationship

At school, as long as each teacher is required to work on his/her own individual tasks (e.g. lesson planning, managing his/her own classes, assessing student learning, etc.), relational frictions are almost non-existence. Problems occur when teachers are required to work interdependently with others. Because teachers are used to working within a well-defined boundary, stretching and/or exposing personal space to others can be frightening.

New requirements

Twenty-first century schools require teachers who are comfortable working closely with others. Due to the ever-changing nature of education and students’ needs, teachers need to readily disclose information about what they teach, how they teach, what resources are used, and how learning will be assessed. Without dialoguing about these, teachers cannot empirically ensure logical flow and meaningful connections across grade levels and subjects taught.

Types of relationships

Teachers relate to their peers in a myriad of ways. This corresponds to the number of people involved in a relationship. Idiosyncrasies are the only constant in relationships at school. They are difficult to predict and thus, prepare for.

According to Roland Barth, the Founding Director of the Principals’ Center at Harvard University, teachers generally relate to one another in one of the following ways; parallel play where they work in close proximity but do not desire to work together; adversarial where they deliberately withhold information from one another, despite knowing that the same could improve student learning; congenial where they appear friendly on the surface but do not like to talk about deep-seated hopes, passion, dissatisfactions and problems; collegial where they work interdependently for collective success.

Preferred type

Obviously, collegial relationship is what leaders want to encourage in teachers. Other types of relationships imply that teachers avoid talking about teaching. When teachers don’t talk about teaching, their instructional practices fail to directly address learning needs of students. Consequently, students under-perform without much hope for improvement because there is no way for individuals in the school to engage in intelligent decision-making.

Boosting collegiality

Judith Warren Little, a professor at the Graduate School of Education, University of California, Berkeley states that a school leader plays a significant role in reinforcing collegial relationships among teachers. To create and sustain a culture of collegiality, leaders should model collegial attitude and behaviors. Rewarding and protecting teachers who already demonstrate collegiality reinforce the same in others. More importantly, a leader who desires collegiality among his/her teachers should clearly communicate it to them. While talking about this may seem unconventional, teachers appreciate truthfulness from their leaders and would willingly oblige. They will take the leader’s words seriously and follow suit.

The extent to which a school progresses (academically) depends on the relational dynamics of teachers. Genuine discussions and vital dialogues about teaching/learning only take place when teachers are comfortable talking to each other. A positive organizational climate provides them with this opportunity. If there is any lesson that I learned as a teacher and school leader, it is that one cannot single-handedly affect constructive changes in a school, not matter how accomplished he/she is. School improvement must be anchored in steady, maturing relationships among individuals who think, feel, and do education!

Superordinate goals: Conflict resolution technique

There are literally tens of conflict resolution techniques. Teachers are taught and encouraged to use them to maintain harmony among students. Examples of these are negotiation, compromise, problem solving, changing the formal structure of a group, expansion of resources, etc. Sometimes, when these don’t work, teachers use authoritative commands to fix relationships.

The effectiveness of these techniques is contingent upon the reason(s) for the conflict, the relation between the conflicting students, and the relation between the teacher and the conflicting students. If examined carefully, most of the aforementioned conflict resolution techniques are formulated around identifying or clarifying issues, searching for shared values, exploring possible solutions, and selecting the solution that satisfies students who have the conflict.

Problems with conventional techniques

While relatively easy to learn and remember, this methodical approach to conflict resolution has its own flaws. Because the presence of a mediator/referee is crucial, it becomes difficult to control conflicting situations outside the classroom or school. Conflicting parties find it difficult to find a middle ground, considering that people have their own unique needs to be fulfilled.

Characteristics of an effective technique

A truly helpful conflict resolution technique should bring reconciliation from within the individuals involved in the situation. In other words, it does not necessarily involve a third person, and at the same time, its effect endures time, space and circumstances.

Robbers Cave Experiment

In 1954, Muzafer Sherif, one of the founders of social psychology, and his colleagues conducted an experiment famously known as the Robbers Cave experiment. The study took place in a 200 acre Boy Scouts Camp, surrounded by Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. In this experiment, two groups of twenty-four homogeneous twelve-year old boys were randomly selected. The boys, twelve members in each side, were unaware of the existence of the other group of boys as they were transported to the camp area separately.

On arrival at the camp site, individuals within a group started bonding with each other. Positive group processing enabled each group to get organized in a functional manner. This occurred naturally, without any instruction from camp staff. The groups worked exceptionally well together that each came up with a name for itself, “The Eagles” and “The Rattlers.” Feeling of Groupness was at its peak.

Later in the experiment, boys from each group were deliberately exposed to the fact that they were not alone in the camp site. Series of unpleasant events took place thereafter. Both groups became protective of camp facilities that belonged to them. Each insisted camp staff to arrange for competitive events to prove the superiority of one over the other. Name calling, passing nasty comments, raiding cabins, burning the other’s flag, and unwillingness to eat in the same cafeteria were frequently observed.

In the next phase, experimenters tried to reduce tension between the two groups through reconciliatory activities involving all the boys (e.g., get-to-know-you). Surprisingly, these activities only made the situation worse. Boys continued to defend their group and disrespect the other.

The experimenters then subjected the boys to a series of difficult situations. These situations required the two groups to work together to overcome specific problems. One such situation was the “drinking water supply failure.” Vandals had supposedly blocked the faucet from the main water tank with a sack. When the boys arrived at the scene, they gathered around the faucet trying to clear it out. They discussed effective ways to solve the problem. After 45 minutes of collaborative work, water finally came through. There was a common rejoicing. The Rattlers did not object the Eagles to get the first drink.

Implication for teaching

The experiment proved that Superordinate goals (goals that get people from opposing sides to come together and work toward a common end result) are indeed effective in resolving conflicts. Teachers could use Superordinate goals to reduce or eliminate conflicts among students. Inspiring students with the “bigger picture” helps them to focus on what is really important, and work together with others to become successful learners.

Upcoming workshops

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1. Assessment for the 21st Century – Hong Kong

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Making memory work

It is almost eight years since the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, in the financial hub of one of the most advanced countries in the world. Surprisingly, all of us can still recall (with great precision) the events of that fateful day. How is it possible for us to recall details of an event that took place years ago, but not so for something that happened last week, or even yesterday? Psychologists call this phenomenon “flashbulb” memory.

To test this theory, ask a friend where and what he/she was doing on 9/11 when the planes crashed into the twin towers. You will invariably get detailed, specific response from your friend. Then, ask the same person where and what he/she had for lunch last Sunday. Chances are that your friend will find it difficult remembering what he/she had. Try this with as many people as you can, and you will be surprised to notice a pattern in their responses.

Flashbulb memory explained

An event or experience registers as flashbulb memory when it is emotionally-packed, unusual, shocking, and given personal meaning. This type of memory tends to form instantaneously, but remains relatively long in one’s mental schema. Some psychologists theorize that flashbulb memory exists because of adrenalin rush and its consequent effect on both episodic (memory of events, in which one has emotional connections with) and declarative memories (memory of factual information surrounding an emotion-filled event).

This could possibly explain why the most negative and positive experiences are easily recalled. A combination of novelty, sudden change in emotional state, and strong cognitive involvement in a particular event or experience makes it harder to forget.

Application for teaching

A lot of school work requires students to commit facts into their memories. However, there are many who struggle to utilize the full capacity of their memory powers. While it is the responsibility of students to work on this, teachers could help a great deal.

Students usually memorize what was taught after school hours. The time gap between lessons at school and study time at home means that a lot of information is lost. That is why it makes more sense for teachers to teach so that students understand and memorize lessons at the same time. Applying the principle of flashbulb memory to teaching makes both possible. In the context of classroom learning, flashbulb memory should only be created using positive experiences (only positive experiences lead to effective memorization)!


Starting a lesson with a surprise element (e.g. coming in dressed up as a Roman Emperor when introducing a lesson on Roman Empire or bringing different sized magnets when teaching earth’s magnetic poles, etc.) increases students ability to remember the lesson by mentally associating the surprise element(s) with facts learned. This association is done visually and at the time of recall, students visualize the surprise element(s) and consequently activate their declarative memory where facts are recorded.

If a teacher is a persuasive speaker or a good story-teller, he/she could use this knack to help students memorize facts better. A teacher could narrate a story (personal or otherwise) that relates to a lesson being taught. When a story is shared from the heart (implying that it touches the hearts and minds of students), and later connected to a learning experience, students tend to remember it better.

Students memorize and recall better when they have the opportunity to learn by doing. However, this is a conventional idea. The trick is to allow student to engage in learning by doing something novel, exciting, and personally meaningful. For example, when teaching about the Olympics, students could be asked to make their own medals (gold, silver and bronze), Olympics torch, etc.

Walking the talk

One of the most common learning outcomes expected of students in any school is the ability to constructively work together with others on various academic and non-academic tasks. Students who do not work well with others are considered ill-prepared for the world of work. They invariably perform poorly on tasks like group projects and presentations that require collective effort of everyone to be successful.

The paradox

While school administrators and teachers work hard to create interest and instill skills that would enable students to work cooperatively on various school tasks, little emphasis is placed on the level and quality of cooperation that exist between administrators and teachers, as well as among teachers. While collaboration is a catchword in the field of business management and leadership, it is hardly a concept that depicts the realities of how adults in a school behave and respond to each other.

Schools are supposed to be places where the concept of collaborative problem solving and decision making is upheld and promoted. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. While students are coaxed into cooperative learning, administrators and teachers work themselves out of it. Students understand the benefit of cooperating with their peers conceptually, but they hardly see the same principle put into action by their role models. By doing this, we give mixed messages to the youth of tomorrow.

Believing we can

Expecting administrators and teachers to harmoniously work together without any bickering is like expecting impossibilities. This may be possible in a perfect world, but it cannot be true in our world. The kind of stress and pressure that everyone is exposed to in the school does not allow them to work together as well as we would want them to. These are the excuses most people give.

I would like to believe otherwise. It is possible for people to effectively work together in the school system. If students can do it, why can’t administrators and teachers who teach them how to do it in the first place? It takes deliberate decision and effort on the part of adults to make this happen. Often, adults are quick to and good at teaching things to others, especially those younger than themselves – but they seldom reflect on whether or not they believe in what they teach; they often overlook the fact that their lives are totally opposite to what they teach to kids.

An example

One of the reasons that encouraged more competition than cooperation among administrators and teachers is the way education was organized and delivered in the past. Take curriculum development for example. Curriculum was developed by a “group of geniuses” who literally had no access to or any connection with actual classroom experiences of teachers and students. Their work was to put together a curriculum (What to teach, how to teach, and how to assess learning) and prescribe it to teachers. An administrator was appointed to make sure that the prescribed curriculum is implemented as instructed. Teachers on the other hand were preoccupied with covering the curriculum as best as they could. They were closed within the four walls of their own classrooms because they did not have the luxury of time and space to think about and work with other teachers – because everyone was busy finishing up his/her own curriculum tasks.

However, new ways of looking at the curriculum and how it is developed have revolutionized how administrators and teachers respond to each other. Although the concept of curriculum mapping is fairly new, it embodies a fresh outlook on how education is organized and delivered in the 21st century. Curriculum mapping requires that teachers who teach a subject work on their own curriculum map. This means that teachers are empowered to decide on what students should learn, how they should be taught, and how learning is assessed. Additionally, and this is very important, curriculum maps are regularly reviewed by groups of teachers and administrators who gather to fill in the gaps that exist in the document through reflective discussions.

Decoding behavior

While many feel the pressure to label the energetic, restless, actively-exploring child as hyperactive, there are others who feel that these are characteristics of a “normal” child. The terms “normal” and “abnormal” have been loosely used by many specialists in the field of psychology and/or education. The use of these words invariably reflects subjective judgment (of someone or a group of people) about different aspects and quality of human experiences, often through limited, narrow perspective.

Because of its subjective nature, it is difficult to accurately identify, categorize, and label behaviors in the classroom. The best we could do is cautiously place behavioral habits and patterns on a continuum of norm and out-of-norm conduct.

Defining normal/abnormal

In the context of classroom teaching/learning, normal behavior could be characterized by responses that are facilitative of successful teaching/learning. Normalcy in this light encompasses both student and teacher behavior. While it is important to have normal kids in the classroom (to ensure learning), it is equally important to have normal teachers who deliberately plan and design positive learning environments. Literature in behavior modification has always and almost completely focused on student behavior that little attention is given to the fact that a lot of “abnormalcy” in the classroom springs from out-of-norm practices of educators.

As a teacher trainer, I end most of my teacher training courses by encouraging student-teachers to take time to examine themselves, identify personal conflicts and complexes, and resolve the same. In other words, before one becomes a teacher, he or she must straighten out emotional insecurities, come to terms with his or her true self, and accept and constructively work with strengths and weaknesses. A teacher who has had an opportunity to healthily resolve his or her own internal battles treats students respectfully, possesses a broad mindset (believes that every student can and does learn), and does not resort to harsh punishment to manage student behavior. Hence a teaching practice that stems from emotional insecurities of a teacher could be considered as abnormal.

In the same manner, most out-of-norm student behaviors stem from their feeling of dissatisfaction toward unmet basic and growth needs. Significant lack in the experiences of belonging, achievement, and meaning propel students into behaving counter-productively at home and in the classroom. Hence students engage in many internalizing (withdrawn, passive, and extremely shy) as well as externalizing (vandalizing, abusive, and unruly) behaviors that are considered unacceptable.

Additional criteria

Inconsistencies in behavior are expected because humans posses dynamic personality patterns. Not all out-of-norm behaviors are unacceptable.

A behavior is considered truly out-of-norm and in need of special attention when it differs significantly from that of student-peers (e.g. drawing vulgar graffiti, hitting other students, not listening to lectures, etc.) and teacher-peers (e.g. screaming to get student attention, administering harsh punishment that are degrading, etc.). This recurrent behavior also lessens the possibility of successful teaching/learning. When a teacher screams at his students to get their attention, he looses their respect and trust. The class becomes more chaotic and quality of teaching suffers. Conversely, a student who does not listen to lectures performs poorly in exams.

An out-of-norm behavior represents a serious, persistent, chronic safety threats to individuals in the classroom. For example, a student who hits other children may end up seriously injuring his or her classmate. A teacher who administers harsh punishment to his or her students may injure them physically and emotionally. This affects overall desire to teach/learn.

Furthermore, to accurately identify out-of-norm behaviors, it is important to differentiate between behaviors that stem from cultural differences and the ones that don’t. For example, it is not abnormal for a Japanese student to avoid eye-contact while talking to a teacher compared to his/her American counterpart. In fact, in many Asian cultures, it is abnormal for a student to look at a teacher straight into his/her eyes. In this case, avoiding eye-contact is not considered out-of-norm behavior.