In 2001, I had achieved considerable early success as a teacher and executive educator. I had also recently been blessed with a child, who was a year old at that time.
I conducted a workshop for sales managers of a leading consumer product company. Early on, it emerged that one of the participants was a little bit of a ‘gallery player’. He would make comments at every opportunity, and in a way, he seemed to be testing the faculty’s authority without explicitly challenging it. The audience (as audiences are wont to do) seemed to enjoy the side show.
Then came a round of introductions. I discovered that the ‘difficult participant’ had the same first name as my first born, and somehow that changed things. Everytime he made a point, I saw the face of my one year old. After that, it was easy to respond to him with affection, patience and concern for his well being.
The consequence was surprising. At the end of the first half a day, the ‘sniper’ became my biggest fan and the class’ respect for me grew multi-fold.
The class taught me a fundamental lesson. As teachers, we can chose the assumptions we make about students. If we make positive assumptions and can hold them for an extended period of time, and reflect these assumptions in our in class behaviour, these assumptions will turn out to be self fulfilling.
Often, students do not offer the enthusiastic responses we want (or anticipate). Due to a combination of insecurity and ego, we can quickly fall into the trap of judging and labelling. An alternative approach is to approach the unanticipated reaction with curiosity (the mindset of a learner) and seek to understand it. The trick is to hold the positive assumption through this process of understanding.
In doing so, a teacher can transform the energy in the classroom and take his/her own respect to higher levels. It is, of course, equally true that if students can cultivate this same curiosity, and refrain from labeling faculty early, they will discover a similar benefit.
In summary, as teachers we should see teaching as an exercise in creative communication and transfer of meaning. At a fundamental level we have to like and respect our students, to approach each class with a sense of service, and an openness to reactions that are not part of our script.
I close this reflection with a simple thought. If you are making positive assumptions about your students, you will smile more frequently and naturally in class. A smile broadcasts your assumptions, is naturally mimicked by the class, and the ‘learning environment’ is in good shape.
Teaching is a privilege. It gives us a right to serve, and to change lives. Assumptions are a choice. The right assumptions catalyse our ability to change lives.