Are You a Headwind or a Tailwind?

airplane-wallpaper-2By Peggy Wuenstel – I wrote my final post for the blogging season last year about why teaching is like air travel.

Despite the fact that I have no plans, again, to get on an airplane for our summer vacation, I find myself returning to the topic. My husband is a very reluctant flier, not because of any fear, but because of a genuine dislike for enclosed cabins, long lines, cranky passengers, and being told what to do. Nobody likes to be told what to do, but air travel takes it to new heights. And we are expected to believe that this is all for our own safety and the efficiency of the industry. It sure feels a lot like teaching school these days.

I will confess to having a limited understanding of the forces that keep planes in the air and ships afloat. The fact that huge metal tubes loaded with passengers and luggage do not fall out of the sky demands an understanding of physics that I do not possess. A balance of lift, thrust, drag, and gravity is also necessary for us to keep kids flying or afloat in the classroom. There are forces acting upon them that we cannot control, but also those that we can impact.

I’ve decided this year, spurred by good mentoring and continuing education, to be more conscious of my influence in acting upon my students. I was in a very real sense determining if I was a headwind or a tailwind for the kids I serve. Some of these kids live in a whirlwind and their greatest needs are stability and a clear itinerary.

Things that were in this year’s flight plan:

  • Keeping track of the percentage of my interactions with children that are criticisms or directions (the latter of which are just a “light” version of the former): There is lots of research out there that indicates it takes multiple positive messages to override a single negative one.
  • Taking student “pushback” less personally: We are genetically programmed to question authority. We know how kids react to being told what to do; yet we do it anyway, even when they hate it. I have found it so much more effective to guide students, and let them believe the discoveries were their very own.
  • Refusing to engage in “awfulizing,” predicting the collapse of everything including a child’s future if we don’t manage children’s behavior swiftly, sternly, and completely: I don’t see lessons as the potential for “crashing and burning.” I don’t allow them to see their challenges or setbacks that way either. I’m not a “zero-tolerance” kind of teacher and never will be.
  • Understanding that passive resistance is the last refuge of the powerless: When you can’t stop, you can slow down. When students feel like they can’t succeed, they won’t try, and that’s when planes fall out of the sky. The primary task of discipline is not shaping behavior by tight controls because it more often than not produces oppositional children who grow into oppositional adults.
  • Remembering that lecturing, punishment, and tighter controls do not work: Lack of understanding is not the problem, but the lack of a strong student-teacher relationship may be. When kids feel they are not being heard, their behavior often reflects this fear and frustration.
  • When things aren’t going smoothly, when there is turbulence or a headwind, our reaction should not be to change the destination or the ETA: We need to change the way in which we present information, reinforce effort, and engage learners. Withhold the excess directions and the criticism urging us to change the pattern.
  • Believing that it is possible to assure kids that they are loved, safe, and that it is possible to be happy in an uncertain world: We teach this happiness through our example. If we live as if life is a competition that we can only win if everyone else loses, we lose our opportunity to be the best kind of tailwind — the one that supports, propels, and keeps aloft while maintaining the possibility for students to be in the pilot’s seat.
  • Venturing into the air only when you have a full range of equipment: Know your subject have a detailed flight plan, travel with people you trust. If the only tool that you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail.
  • Enjoying the scenery outside your window, and appreciate the perspective that is afforded you in the clouds: Try to learn something new from every trip you take.

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