Becoming an Inspiration

Lee Dieck (September 2023)

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a 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 heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

Haim Ginott

I hung this quote over my desk for many years, and it came to mind recently when a Buzzfeed article caught my eye. Teachers in the Buzzfeed community were asked to “share experiences they’ve had with students that not only opened their eyes but compelled them to change something about how they conduct their classes.” (see article here) The themes in these stories were familiar: incorrect assumptions made about students’ lives, the influence of sometimes rigid past practices on current teachers, the experiences that helped teachers see students as developing humans making their way in a complex world. 

Once, when broaching this subject with colleagues, I asked them to think about a time when a teacher had a positive influence on them, and then I asked them to think about a time when they felt unseen, or worse, shamed in a classroom. The truth is that anyone who has ever been a student has likely had experiences of both kinds. Kids aren’t perfect; they are learning and growing, and, particularly in adolescence, their brains are reinforcing the neural connections for what they are learning. As teachers we have an incredible opportunity to help them in this process and following the tenets of self-determination theory can help us. 

Self-determination theory has identified three basic psychological needs that all humans possess: the needs for autonomy, belonging or relatedness, and the need to develop competence. Decades of research demonstrate that fulfilling these basic needs leads to better outcomes: in work, in school, and in well-being. In my teaching, these needs guided my daily practice. Here’s a very brief overview of these three psychological needs and some ways to foster them:

Autonomy requires that people know themselves–what they value and care about. When experiencing autonomy, people are able to act in a way that is in keeping with who they are, they have some agency–some say in the decisions that impact their life. 

To support autonomy:

  • Encourage student involvement in classroom decisions such as developing class norms or expectations.
  • Provide options in assignments for students to explore areas of personal interest when completing that assignment (e.g. students could use data from a favorite sport to apply to a statistics problem, or read/summarize a biography of someone in a field they are interested in). 
  • Be aware of multiple conflicting demands on students; consider having them help to set due dates for major assignments when possible.
  • Encourage students to speak to you when time constraints arise (e.g. family events, late sports games). By opening the door to those conversations, you are letting them know that you “see” them and can help them plan for such conflicts. Life happens and helping them learn how to navigate tricky times will help them in the future. 

Belonging or Relatedness means that a person can be their authentic self, and be accepted and cared for in a specific environment, in this case the classroom. 

To create an environment of belonging: 

  • Start each class with an activity (it can be very quick) that helps students get to know each other (and you).
  • If there’s something significant going on in the world or in your school, take time to talk about it. Encourage active listening for all. 
  • Check in with a “how are you?”

Developing competence requires that there be an appropriate level of challenge, with feedback and support commensurate with that challenge that fosters growth and learning. 

To support student growth and learning:

  • Help students find the relevance of what they’re learning to their lives. Sometimes it’s just that they need to know something in order to move on, but there may be other world correlations that will help. This helps students internalize their motivation. 
  • Challenge questions can be a good tool, but surprise questions on a graded assessment can be unnecessarily anxiety provoking; be mindful of the context in which you present a challenge, and the preparation students have had to meet that challenge. 
  • Have students set goals (incremental, actionable, and measurable) about the learning in your class. As they realize goal attainment, it becomes easier to move on to new goals. 

Most of the teachers who responded to Buzzfeed’s question were grateful for the ways in which they had grown as they reevaluated their practices. Self-determination theory data suggest that it is not only student well-being that is impacted by paying attention to the need for autonomy, belonging, and competence; teachers also report a greater sense of satisfaction in their work as a result. 

Wishing you all a good school year in these complex times.