Teachers are Human, Too

teachers schoolBy Dr. Thomas Gordon, Founder of GTI

The Acceptance-Unacceptance Rectangle helps us understand that teachers will inevitably be inconsistent. Pity the poor teacher who tried to live up to the admonition of the principle to be consistent when the teacher finds his/her feelings changing from day to day, moment to moment, from student to student and from situation to situation. This advice ignores these differences in feelings, people and places and has had a harmful effect upon teachers in influencing them to pretend, to act the part of a person whose feelings are always the same. In the same way, the advice to be consistent has led teachers to feel that they should agree at all times with other teachers, “put up a united front,” and “back each other up” so that the students see the teachers unified.

Mrs. East, a teacher of junior high students, felt that the skirt length of some of the girls in her class did not meet her standards of acceptable dress. Mrs. West, a teacher across the hall, felt the skirts were entirely acceptable. Mrs. East pressured Mrs. West to confront the girls along with her so that they could present a “united front.” Mrs. West gave in and was untrue to her real feelings.

Dangers of False Acceptance

The patent nonsense of “united front” not only is injurious to teacher-student relationships but fosters resentment among those who find themselves either having to accept behavior they don’t like or, conversely, having to pretend unacceptance of behavior they find personally acceptable.

No teacher ever feels accepting toward all the behaviors of any student. Some teachers have a very “low line” in their “Acceptance Rectangle.” But even the most accepting teacher finds he/she cannot be “unconditionally accepting.” Some teachers pretend to be more accepting of their students’ behavior than they really are, but they are just playing the role of being a “good teacher.” Therefore, some of their acceptance is false. Outwardly they act accepting, but inwardly they feel unaccepting.

Mr. Williams is trying to help one student with an assignment but three other students nearby are holding a discussion so loudly that he is unable to concentrate effectively. Mr. Williams, wanting to follow a permissive approach, looks like he is seething with irritation at being frustrated in his task.

False acceptance is almost impossible to pull off fully. Students are amazingly sensitive to the attitudes of teachers. No matter how practiced, a teacher will send non-verbal cues and clues as to how he is really feeling and students have an uncanny ability to perceive these messages. A frown, a body tenseness, a tone of voice may tell a student that the teacher is not really accepting what he or she is doing and the student is likely to feel disapproval. At that moment he feels that his teacher does not like him.

Such “mixed messages” are difficult for students to handle. The three students in Mr. Williams’ class want to continue their discussion and Mr. Williams hasn’t told them to stop, but they can see that he is getting angry. What should they do?

Putting students in such a bind can create a great deal of frustration and discomfort. Suppose you enter the teachers’ lounge where another teacher is relaxing. There is a radio there and you ask if she would mind if you turn it on. She says “I don’t care.” Yet, when the music comes on her facial expression tells you that she does indeed care. What do you do? Turn it off and feel resentful? Leave it on knowing the other teacher doesn’t really like it? Sending students such conflicting messages causes “testing, ” feelings of insecurity, anxiety and causes them to infer that you secretly disapprove of them. It would probably be easier for the students to deal with out-and-out despots than people who outwardly are permissive, sweet and undemanding but who communicate nonverbally their true unacceptance!

Behavior as a Definition of Self

Another form of false acceptance lies in the myth that you can accept the student but not his or her behavior. This idea seems to be especially appealing to those who advocate permissiveness but who are honest enough with themselves to admit that they cannot always accept their students’ behavior. While this idea may relieve some of the guilt that teachers have felt when they have been unaccepting of students’ behavior, it has been damaging to teacher-student relationships. It has given sanction for teachers to use their power to restrict or set limits on certain behaviors that they don’t accept. Teachers have interpreted this idea to mean that it is alright to control, restrict, prohibit, demand or deny, as long as they do it in some clever way so that the students perceive it as not rejecting of them but of their behavior. The fallacy of this whole concept lies in the ability of any person to be genuinely accepting of a student and at the same time unaccepting toward whatever the student is doing or saying. What is “the student” if she or he is not the behaving student, acting or speaking in a particular way at a particular time? It is the behaving student toward whom a teacher has feeling, not some abstraction called ‘student.’

Students too, have difficulty separating themselves from their behavior. If a student senses that you are unaccepting of his or her having manufactured paper airplanes, it is doubtful that he or she can then make the high level inference that even though you do not like the making of the paper airplanes you nevertheless feel very accepting of him or her as a person. On the contrary, the student doubtlessly feels that because of what he or she as a total person is doing at that moment, you are not at all accepting of him or her at the moment.

An additional risk is run when you tell a student “I accept you, but stop what you are doing.” Under such circumstances the student is unlikely to change behavior. Students hate to be denied, restricted or prohibited by their teachers no matter what kind of explanation accompanies the use of power and authority. “Setting limits” has a high probability of backfiring on teachers in the form of resistance, rebellion, lying and resentment. There are far more effective ways of influencing students to modify behavior unacceptable to you than the use of your power to “set limits” or restrict.

Whether a student perceives him/herself as unaccepted as a person depends upon how many behaviors are unacceptable. Teachers who find a great many behaviors of students unacceptable will inevitably foster in these young people a deep feeling that they are unacceptable as persons. Conversely, teachers who are more accepting of their students’ behaviors generate more positive feelings within the students that they are indeed acceptable persons.

Recognizing Your Lack of Acceptance

The Rectangle helps teachers understand their own feelings and the conditions that influence these feelings to change constantly. Real teachers will feel both accepting and unaccepting toward their students, their attitude toward the same behavior cannot be consistent; it varies from time to time. They should not, and cannot, hide their true feelings. Nor can they expect each member of the faculty to be equally accepting or unaccepting of the same behavior or the same student. In short, teachers are people, not gods. They do not have to act unconditionally accepting or even consistently accepting. Students undoubtedly prefer to be accepted but they can handle teachers’ unaccepting feelings when teachers send clear messages that match their true feelings. Not only will clear, honest messages make it easier for students to cope, but they will help each student see the teacher as a real person–transparent, human–someone with whom he or she can have an honest relationship.

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