Self-Knowledge for Teachers

In mid-August, new faculty members congregate in the spacious periodical room of the Evans Library and set to the task of portraying their experience of high school in a picture. Working on newsprint with markers, Mary (not her real name) studies the page, and draws a diagonal line across the page to represent two distinct phases of her high school career. She includes skis, a flute, piles of books, and a picture of herself on each side of the line, dressed very differently. There are faces of key friends on each side, and symbols for other memories. On one side is a scene of a family tragedy. Above both sides, an image of herself writing furiously, filling notebook after notebook, points to a coping mechanism and an academic talent. Her peers’ pictures are equally expressive, complex, and unique: Each person approaches the task differently, but all the pictures are histories replete with emotion and detail.

Every teacher must come to the realization that not all of her students learn as she prefers to do herself; they are not all in the process of becoming effective in the same ways she is effective, and this is not a sign of lesser ability. Although this may seem obvious to an outside observer, the assumption that all students would do better if they learned as we do is deeply-rooted and unconscious. It shapes teachers’ attitudes toward students, predisposes teachers toward certain types of instructional strategies, and underlies evaluation practices. It is a powerful force, and as good teachers develop and grow more versatile, they become increasingly aware of this assumption and its impact on their teaching practices.

To begin to bring these issues to consciousness, exercises that center on a teacher’s own experience of adolescence and high school have long been a part of new faculty orientation at Dublin School (New Hampshire). New faculty are asked to draw a picture or diagram of themselves and their high school experience on large newsprint paper.  Pictures are posted for 10-15 minutes of silent observation by the group (they can be annotated as well, or a question board can be attached), and then each person discusses his depiction.

The exercise invariably brings out certain types of understandings: that there were highs and lows, that certain key activities often led by an influential adult helped in difficult times, that identity formation took precedence over grades, that core relationships were important, and that passions developed and flowered. Reveling in and sorting through the memories of high school brings up a lot of emotions, so it is important that this activity be nonjudgmental. After all, whose adolescence was without insecurities, mistakes, hurt feelings? Or without victories, transcendence, and growth? It also establishes vividly that each person had very distinct learning experiences and approached academics differently. Recognizing this in their peers lays the groundwork for teachers to accept it in their students.

Forming positive relationships with students early in the year is the critical job for each faculty member. With a fresh awareness of their own high school experiences, new faculty are ready to greet students and their families with perspective, energy, and empathy. They can also launch into their Dublin teaching careers curious about the learning experiences and proclivities of their students, consciously looking for differences from their own experiences. 

Note: a version of this piece appeared in Independent School magazine's blog on July 23.