Saturday, July 10, 2010

A 2-for-1 "Soft Skills" Special: The Sit-Stand Paradox and Defective Girls

Written for The Virtual Conference on Soft Skills, July 3 - July 31, 2010

Of all my courses as a pre-service math education major, I think I enjoyed educational psychology the least. When you spend much of every day deciphering the infallibility of mathematics, the "theories" of social science don't hold up well against the scrutiny of a brain hardened by the concept of rigorous proof. I now realize I should have adjusted my perspective in whatever way necessary to ensure I got more out of the class, but even if I had I don't think anything would have fully prepared me for a classroom full of independently-minded students. You just have to jump in there, year after year, class after class.

In my six years of teaching high school math I developed some wonderful relationships with my students. Without overstepping the bounds of a teacher-student relationship, my students became my friends, something I seem to remember being told I should never let happen. But I would look forward to seeing my students each day; I would try to make the most of my time with them, and I would miss them when they were gone. If that doesn't describe "friends," then I apparently don't know what a friend is. I might be in the "ivory towers" of academia now, but I honestly think of my former students from those six years every single day.

That's not to say that there weren't MANY bumps and hiccups along the way, and I regret the lack of effort and deficits in my own character that prevented me from forming stronger relationships with ALL my students. But as I reflect back, two lessons learned (one a realization, the other a piece of advice) helped strengthen that special student-teacher bond.

The Sit-Stand Paradox
Ask any teacher what period of the day is likely to be their least favorite and most will answer, "last period." It doesn't matter if your school has four, six, seven, or eight periods -- there is always a last period. By far my toughest group of kids I ever attempted to teach was a last-period business math class. It's a bad sign when, on the very first day of class, a student who you've just met pulls you aside and tells you, "I don't know who decided to put this mix of students together in the same class, but it's a really, really bad idea." I'd like to think my chances with them would have been much better if I'd seen them before lunch.

So what makes last period so tough? I think the explanation is simple: after a long day at school, students are tired of sitting and teachers are tired of standing. Should you be trying to hide this fact from your students? No! They're people, not circus animals that might attack if they sense fear. If you want a class that works with you, not against you, share your motivations and frustrations. Establish common goals and understandings so you can move forward together. Maybe it's time for an out-of-seat activity, a lesson outside, or a trip to a less familiar room in the school. I know it sounds easier than it really is, but even something as simple as sending your students to the board while you sit at their desk can be just the change in perspective everybody needs. If you're worried that instruction might suffer with a little chaos, think of how much it's already suffering when all the students are watching the clock hoping to be somewhere else.

Don't Treat Boys Like They're Defective Girls
During my third year of teaching I had the privilege to share a classroom with Miss Sandra Miley, a 30+ year educator who took a distinct pleasure in teaching freshman boys' seminar and P.E. If you didn't already know, freshman boys are at that awkward age (which lasts from about 11 to 25, as far as I can tell) that can make them awfully hard to teach. Not so for Miss Miley, who passed on this hard-earned wisdom:

"Do you want to know the secret to teaching boys? It's simple. Don't treat them like they're defective girls."

Ever since I was given that Yoda-like advice, I've been trying to unravel the mysteries contained within. Certainly Miss Miley had a perspective from 30+ years in the classroom that I may never match, but I think I got the point. As teachers, our jobs are made easier (not necessarily more enjoyable or effective) when students sit at attention, take notes, raise their hands, follow rules and instructions, and hang on our every word. If you have students who fit that description, I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that the majority of them are girls. Should you want or expect every student to belong in that category? I sure hope not. So don't punish boys who don't happen to behave like those girls. Such behavior is probably not in their DNA.

If you're not convinced, here's a little anecdote to consider. A highly-respected education researcher shared this hypothesis at a conference last fall (identities have been hidden to protect the unpublished):
"I've never been brave enough to try to publish this, but I've long wondered if boys develop better problem-solving skills because they aren't paying attention in class. Girls who listen carefully to instructions and take notes always know exactly where to start because the teacher told them. Boys who goof off during instructions spend a lot more time and effort sorting out the aspects of a problem for themselves, and that practice pays off in the long run."