Education And Self Esteem

Students and self esteem #

Statistics have shown that 95% of students enter schooling with high self esteem, but that by the time they complete High School only 5% have high self esteem.

Some teachers wonder how that 5% managed to escape their negativism.

Near the beginning of Sofia Coppola’s 1991 mystery-drama The Virgin Suicides, another film about disproportionately punished young women, a male doctor tends to a girl who has recently self-harmed.

He asks her:

“What are you doing honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.”

The girl responds, not batting an eyelid:

“Obviously doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.”

##Something’s gone badly wrong with teaching

Up until the 1990’s the average burn out rate for teachers was about 25 – 30 years. Today it is about 5 – 10 years.

There are many reasons for this, and low teacher pay is not the main one. Principals are also under tremendous public pressure as parenting techniques have changed drastically.

The status of teachers has changed dramatically. When I began teaching in the early 1960’s in Canada, my authority went unchallenged until the late sixties, when I distinctly recall the first student to defiantly reject a reasonable direction.

When the student was referred to the administration, a meeting of all his teachers was informed that his was an exceptional case as an only child of career minded parents, and we had to find new ways of dealing with him. Our collective opinion assumed this was a soft option, but since our superiors had master’s degrees in education we grudgingly submitted and found alternative strategies to deal with recalcitrant students simply to survive.

The new strategies involved mutual respect, positive strategies and eventually negotiations of student conduct to build trust rather than imposed power level differentials.

I got a reprieve because in 1972. I migrated to Australia and again found myself with more untrammelled power in my classroom than any King or Queen in an Absolute Monarchy enjoyed. – temporarily – for about 10 years.

Initially I recall attempting to use my trust building skills with a group of troublesome year nine boys in the playground in 1974. The deputy Principal took me aside, explaining,

“you shouldn’t talk to those boys because it just encourages their bad behaviour. Remember you are the boss and whatever you say goes”.

As in all human endeavour we need to try to find the middle course. Any excess is generally counterproductive. Too much of a good thing is generally bad for you – including ice-cream.

Paradigm shifts #

In 1984, on playground duty, a young boy gave me a gratuitous spray of abuse. Expecting the fury of the system to smite him sharply, I took him up to see the Deputy.

The three of us down in a circle, as the Deputy questioned the boy patiently, listening to his explanations thoughtfully, reprimanded him pointedly and sent him back to class.

When I got up to leave, he cut in with: “Where do you think you’re going? Sit down for a while”

Then he wearily gave me some fatherly advice:

The gist of it was: Don’t ever let the opinion of a 13 year ever unduly affect your self-esteem. He wasn’t talking to you – he was letting off steam and you were just the brunt of it. Never take it personably.

Now many people at that time considered it a soft or weak response. But to me it was an eye – opener and served me well in not only surviving the next 20 years, but actually making me more effective. Teaching is one of the noble careers, and making a difference to students values and aspirations are more important that high test scores or our egos.

A few years later, I was having a difficult time with a particularly hostile year eight class. One of the teachers on my staff seemed to handle them alright, so I asked him what the answer was. He replied:

“The worst thing you can do to a student is take away your approval; if you have never given it to them, you can’t take it away”.

In my next class with them I gave them an exercise in original thinking, insisting they had to all be different. I then praised each effort and turned around the whole attitude of the class.

Autonomy-supportive teaching #

Attitudes showed an even greater change. When I started, the teacher’s authority was seldom questioned. The abolition of Corporal punishment forced teachers to adopt new strategies to deal with difficult students.

Now teachers are better trained to deal with disruptive students and as a result students need to take more responsibility for their own behaviour.

Once you accept that students own their own behaviour and you give them agency to determine how they want others to see themselves, responsibility shifts from you to them. Respect is a two way street, and once a student realises that the teacher regards them as a worthy individual, mutual respect can develop.

Once a teacher listens to the student’s concerns and acknowledges their grievances, mutual respect between teachers and students can develop.
The idea behind autonomy-supportive teaching is to prevent conflict by cultivating a caring, egalitarian classroom that minimises hierarchy, conflict and “me-vs-you” competition.

Positive Education #

Australia’s principal elite breeding ground – Geelong Grammar – became the first private school in Australia, and one of the first in the world, to adopt “positive education” – a process whereby a whole series of psychological techniques are taught to students as a method by which they can optimise their own positivity, and resilience.

Martin Seligman developed a program incorporated into the senior school curriculum, Seligman himself – famous for developing the concept of depression as “learnt helplessness” – running several of the school’s teachers through an intensive training course.

It was changing ideologies and assumptions about how one creates a ruling elite – from the original idea of a place such as Timbertop, that extreme experience would shape character, to the current idea that people must be trained to work on themselves in the abstract.

It raise the fundamental question whether the purpose of public schools is to turn out knowledgeable empathetic citizens or skilled workers.

Trinity Grammar in Kew Melbourne demonstrates the clear divide in focus in prestigious schools; are they there to create a caring community to mould students into well rounded citizens, or become preoccupied with high marks, status and promising high paying careers?

These clashes become political battles in many schools; those who want to impose discipline and authoritarian values on students versus those who believe students should learn to think for themselves and forge their own values and be responsible for their own behaviour.

Many schools tear themselves apart on these contentious isssues and many careers of caring teachers are wantonly destroyed in their wake.