General Techniques for Working with Teachers   Catalog #213: Helping Others with Their Teaching
The principles outlined above are intended as overall guides or decision-making rules to help inservice educators select appropriate responses to inservice teaching situations. The general techniques described briefly below are intended to help the inservice educator to further the goals implied by those principles.

1. Maintain an Optimum Distance

Many educators consider closeness, warmth, and supportiveness essential and valuable attributes of their relationships with learners. Research seems to support the contention that warmth, for example, is related to teacher effectiveness whether at the school or inservice level. However, inservice educators may be tempted to make the error of being too close to the teachers for whom they are responsible. An optimum rather than maximum or minimum distance is recommended for several reasons. First, excessive closeness may inhibit or limit the teacher educator's ability to evaluate the teacher's progress realistically. Indeed, in such cases the teacher educator may be unable to help the teacher confront serious weaknesses or may fail to perceive the weaknesses at all. Second, if the teacher educator becomes too close to the teacher, he or she may unintentionally impinge on the teacher's right to privacy, a right deserving protection.

Third, there is some danger that, if the teacher educator becomes too close to one of the teachers in a group, the tendency to make inadvertently disparaging remarks about another teacher in the group may be great, and credibility and effectiveness may thus be undermined. Fourth, if the relationships between teacher educators and teachers become too close or involved, emotional "burn-out" may occur within a few months (Maslach & Pines, 1977). Not only may excessive personal stress be the result, but also effectiveness on the job may suffer. Minimum (versus optimum) closeness occurs when the educator's distance from the teacher or student teacher is too great. This is would be manifested by coldness or aloofness, and is unlikely to provide a relationship in which growth and development can occur.

2. Cultivate the Habit of Suspending Judgment

There is a strong tendency among those of us who are teachers to pass judgment on what we see in the classroom. We tend not only to judge the rightness or goodness of what we see, but also to assess whether the teacher is doing things "my way" or not. Such judgments seem to come naturally! However, if the intention is to stimulate and support someone's development, then instead of passing judgment, it may be more to the point to ask oneself questions like the following: How can I account for what I am observing? Why is the teacher responding to the situation in this way? and, Why is this happening? In seeking answers to such questions, rather than judging the events observed, teacher educators are much more likely to learn those things that will increase their capacity to help a teacher. Answering such questions allows teacher educators to discover possible causes of a teacher's observed behavior. Each possible cause be examined for plausibility, and when a reasonably plausible cause has been identified, an appropriate method for helping the teacher can be selected and tried.

This technique is recommended for several reasons. First, it includes two features. It can help us resist the temptation to pass judgment and at the same time can encourage us to inspect our observations more closely. This in turn can help to slow down our responses to the situation, thereby reducing any tendency to overreact. Second, asking how the observed behavior might be accounted for is likely to lead to learning more about the people we are trying to help, and thus to increase insight into how the teacher defines the situation.

Obviously, there are many possible reasons why teachers do what they do. Sometimes the teacher's reason for a given action is that it appears to "work," or perhaps a given action is all the teacher knows how to do in a particular situation. Often, teachers take certain actions because they think that the director or the principal wants them to behave this way, even though that may not necessarily be the case. Some teachers do what they do because they think that others, such as parents, evaluators, colleagues, or visitors want them to do it; or because their own teachers did these particular things; or because these things are simply traditional; and so forth.

Inservice educators' attempts to account for the observed behavior of a teacher should help them to make more informed decisions about what to do next to help the teacher. The technique of suspending judgment is related to the more general principle of timing (Katz, 1977b), namely, that the longer the latency before a teacher responds to the learner, the more information the teacher has and the more likely he or she is to make better decisions about the next steps. This latency principle seems especially relevant to inservice educators because they often enter classrooms "off the streets," so to speak, with little if any prior information concerning the antecedents of the situation observed. The temptation to pass judgment rapidly may lead to important errors in assessing teacher needs and competencies.

3. Phrase Suggestions in Experimental Form

Most teaching involves occasions when the most appropriate response to the learner is to make a suggestion. When giving suggestions to teachers, it is helpful to phrase them in the following form: "Next time X comes up, try Y, and see if it helps." Depending on the situation, it might be good to add something such as "X helps some teachers in this kind of situation—but if you find it doesn't seem to help, we can talk about something else to try."

This technique is recommended for several reasons. First, it can be expected to strengthen the teacher's dispositions to be experimental and resourceful. Furthermore, when a suggestion is offered with the implication that it is the one solution or the only answer to the problem, and if attempts to use it subsequently fail, the teacher's sense of frustration and defeat may be intensified rather than diminished. Similarly, it is advisable to make suggestions that the individual teacher can be expected to try successfully. If suggestions require much greater sophistication than the teacher has, then the consequences are very likely to be feelings of failure and a greater sense of helplessness or incompetence. Suggestions should be phrased in such a way that, in those instances—which will inevitably occur—in which the suggestion is not successful, the teacher can understand the reasons why failure resulted.

Another reason for recommending this technique is that when suggestions are made in terms of what to try "next time," the likelihood of humiliating or embarrassing the teacher about the incident just observed is minimized. Some inservice educators are so eager to get teachers to analyze their own "mistakes" following an unsuccessful teaching episode that they might inadvertently embarrass them, which in turn could undermine the teachers' dispositions to go on learning, trying, inventing, and seeking the best methods for themselves.

4. Avoid the Temptation to Stop Pattern Behavior

From time to time we observe teacher behavior that we think should be stopped "cold." While the teacher educator's position may indeed be right, a two-step approach toward such situations may be helpful. First, we can ask in such situations whether the behavior observed really endangers any child. If the answer is a clear "yes," then the second step is to use all the resources at our disposal to bring the behavior to a halt. If the answer is ambiguous ("maybe") or if the answer is "no," then the next step is to help the teacher to try out and practice alternative strategies with which to replace or supplement the old patterns.

If we succeed in stopping a teacher's behavior in advance of sufficient mastery of a new pattern, he or she may be left without alternative methods of coping with the situation. This situation may cause the children's behavior to become more unacceptable and increase the teacher's own feelings of frustration and failure. Occasionally, this sequence of events is followed by a type of "backlash" (i.e., a strengthened conviction that the old pattern was really the right one after all).

5. Help Teachers Define Their Job so that Its Objectives Are Achievable

From time to time, inservice educators work with teachers who have defined their jobs so that they have to achieve every possible educational objective, or to achieve objectives which are almost humanly impossible to achieve. For example, many teachers of young children think their job requires them to "love all the children" in their classrooms. It is reasonable to assume that they do not have to love or even like all the children they teach--though they do have to respect them all. The latter is not always easy, but is far more achievable than universal love!

The point is that when teachers define their jobs so that the probability or potential for achievement (and therefore satisfaction) is very low, they are likely to experience decreases in responsivity and sensitivity, which lessen effectiveness. Diminished effectiveness can, in turn, lead to feelings of depression, which further diminishes effort and hence achievement and satisfaction. Thus, a downward spiral seems inevitable (Seligman, 1975).

In such cases, the inservice educator can assist teachers by helping them to clarify their own purposes and to settle on some boundaries for their responsibilities and authority. Successful assistance along these lines should lead to the teacher's increased sense of effectiveness and satisfaction, which in turn should increase responsiveness and sensitivity. This increased responsiveness and sensitivity is then likely to foster heightened effort, effectiveness, and satisfaction.

6. Serve as a Neutralizer of Conflicts

Once in a while, inservice educators find themselves trying to help teachers in a situation marked by within-staff conflicts. In such situations, we are often tempted to align ourselves with one side or the other. If we give in to that temptation, we may lose our effectiveness in the long run. The technique that seems useful on such occasions is to remind the contentious parties as gracefully as possible of their superordinate and shared objectives, to encourage them to keep their minds and energies focused on their long-range, common responsibilities. Similarly, it seems useful to resist the temptation to follow up rumors or in any other way to transfer potentially inflammatory information. It is also helpful to avoid reinforcing complaining behavior. One has to sort out and determine which complaints are legitimate and deserve to be followed up and which ones simply reflect the possibility that complaining is, for some people, the only way they know to get others' attention.

7. Use Demonstrations of Skills

The technique of cautiously modeling behavior or practices is a useful tool for inservice educators, and opportunities to demonstrate one's skills are often also opportunities to strengthen one's credibility as an educator. But modeling is not without some risks. For example, many inservice educators have had the experience of entering a day care center or preschool class in which (for whatever reason) the situation is out of control. Because we have worked with children for many years, we may know how to bring order to the scene in a flash. In addition, being a relative stranger may increase our power to obtain compliance from young children. But such a demonstration of skill may cause some teachers to look at the scene and say to themselves, "I'll never be that good," or "Why is it so easy for her or him?" and to become even more discouraged and insecure. Or, in the case of demonstrating our skill with older children, the risk occasionally exists that the demonstration will make the teacher look incompetent in the eyes of the pupils. Both of these potentially negative consequences of demonstration must be carefully weighed against the positive value of modeling good practices and enhancing credibility.

8. Share Your Understanding of How a Teacher Sees You

Keep in mind that we do not always know how the teachers we work with perceive us. We know that we are kind and warm, sincere and helpful, generous and giving, and so forth! But we are unlikely to be perceived that way in all situations. Some teachers may be afraid of us or unnerved by our presence, even though we do not see ourselves as threatening in any way. If we sense that these kinds of feelings are generated by our presence, it is helpful to let the teacher know that we understand these feelings; that we have also experienced similar feelings; and that we realize teachers might look at us with apprehension, suspicion, or even fear. Acknowledging the potential for such perceptions may be a technique by which to diffuse the excessive stress teachers sometimes experience when they are observed. Furthermore, the shared insight might clear the way to selecting more useful and constructive content for the relationship between the teacher and the inservice educator.

9. Resist the Temptation to "Use" Teachers

Some inservice educators are especially intent on getting something accomplished for the children and seem to construe the situation as "getting to the kids through the teachers." If we want to help children (and no doubt we do), then we should do so directly instead of trying to "use" teachers. The focus should be on helping the teachers as persons worthy of our concern and caring in their own right. It is useful to define the role of teacher educator as someone who helps and works with teachers for their own sakes. When we do that wholeheartedly and well, the children will surely benefit also.

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