Neither Kind Nor Patient

patient dog Morgue fileThe last time I had my teaching evaluated by my administration, I was disappointed. Although I was happy to get a grade of “excellent” (highest on a five point scale), the comments from administration made me gag: “Kate is a kind and a patient teacher,” and “Her students like her very much and respond well to her teaching.”

I don’t mind if students see me as kind and patient because they don’t usually see into the inner workings and complexities of the art of teaching, but I expect administration to be a little more savvy, and to appreciate some of the nuances.

Besides, kindness and patience are character traits and the implication is that I am a good teacher because I am a good person, not because of the work I put in, the knowledge I have acquired, and the skills I have honed over the years.

They are virtues associated most closely with women, and the stereotype raises its ugly head again–lower level students, adult basic literacy students, can (should) be taught by women because of their warm and nurturing natures; students at a higher level need to be taught by people with real skills and knowledge of subject matter.

And further, since all that is needed to teach adult basic literacy students is kindness and patience, those teachers don’t need to be paid well, or at all. In my part of the world, it is mostly volunteers who teach basic literacy students; adults taking classes that are equivalent to high school get paid instructors.

The Evaluator saw “Kindness.”

Now it’s true I nearly always treat students gently, but it’s not because I’m kind. It’s because I work for social justice. It’s because I believe in equality. I know that I have power and privilege in relation to students, power and privilege that come to me by accident.

I am white. Three little words that carry so much freight.

My family moved into the middle class because my father, who was a veteran, got a free university education after the war was over. Think of that. People got bombed and killed in another part of the world, and one result was that my father could stop being a labourer and become a pharmacist.

Because my family was moving up, I was taught to behave in ways that middle class people approved of. I was bright. I didn’t cause any trouble. I got good marks, and my parents could afford to send me to university.

As a result, I ended up in front of this class full of people who did not have my advantages and my privilege. People who expect that I will make the rules in this room. People who want what they think I can offer, a chance for a better life for them and their children.

I know how much power I have. I try not to abuse it. You can’t call that kindness: Call it awareness, call it politics, a thirst for fairness, a desire for equality, a sense of social justice. Call it many names, but not kindness. Nothing so condescending as kindness.

On a more practical side, I treat students gently because it’s part of creating a safe space. If they don’t feel safe, they don’t come back. If they don’t feel safe, they don’t fully engage in the learning process. If they don’t engage, they make slow progress, or no progress. In that case, I feel like a failure.

So really, you might say that what seems like kindness is simply my desire for job satisfaction.

The Evaluator saw “Patience.”

When I first tell people about my work, a common response is “Oh, you must have so much patience.” But no, I am not a patient teacher.

In order for there to be patience, there must first be impatience. The patient person must be sitting on her desire to be going faster or changing direction. She may have many motives for disguising her impatience, for imposing patience on top of impatience, but at the root of patience must be impatience. If she is content with the speed and the direction things are going in, there is no impatience; hence, there is no need for patience.

My evaluator observed me teaching in a situation where she thought she would be impatient. She knows that an adult literacy class involves teaching a limited number of fairly basic skills to people who have not learned them in spite of years of schooling. She imagines that she would find it hard to be patient in that situation.

Since she doesn’t see me being impatient, she concludes that I must be patient.

What does she miss? If I’m not being patient, what is going on?

I’m curious.

How many times will the student use the math manipulatives to solve problems before he internalizes the idea that the bottom number of a fraction indicates the number of pieces a whole is divided into; the bigger the number, the smaller the pieces.

I’m evaluating learning.

I’m doing constant formative assessment as I work with students individually or in a group. What do they know? Where in the process are they stuck? What misconceptions are blocking their understanding of this new work? WIll their grasp of this material be a sufficient basis for the new work I know is coming up next week?

I’m evaluating teaching.

Which of the strategies I have for teaching periods and capitals is working best for these students today?

I’m thinking about the long term and the short term.

How does this lesson on periods and capitals fit into my plan for helping students improve their writing? What connections can I make to show students how things fit together in the bigger picture?

I’m paying attention to emotions.

This classroom is a sea of emotions. I look for behaviours that indicate what people are feeling: Whose frustration is making it impossible to concentrate on the work? Who is finding joy and satisfaction in doing something they couldn’t do yesterday? Whose response to stress is causing them to disassociate?

I try to find some way to express or deal with the emotions that are impeding learning, and bring forward those that are conducive to learning. I watch my own emotions, too, because they affect my teaching, and my students’ learning.

I’m solving problems.

Every minute, as they come up. Many things new and different every day.

I’m refusing to be bored.

My first rule in the classroom, for me and for my students. If I’m bored, something is not working. Find out what it is, and fix it. Refuse to be bored.

I’m engaged.

In short, I’m not patient; I’m teaching.

My students respond to me, not because they like me, but because I’m teaching! And because they’re learning.

Patience (photo: Anita Peppers)

108 thoughts on “Neither Kind Nor Patient

  1. Wonderful post!

    My experience is sometimes different from what you describe, in that I do at times feel impatient and have to consciously manifest patience. I have realized that when this happens, it is without exception an indication that whatever I am doing is not working for the student(s), and it’s time to change gears, or backtrack and re-evaluate my whole approach. In my opinion, the root of this problem lies with the lack of consistent, specialized training for literacy educators. My entire professional life as a literacy teacher has been a process of scrambling to figure out what I need to know, and then seeking out the resources to self-educate so I can better serve my students. The misguided assumption that all you need to teach literacy to adults is to be “kind and patient” certainly contributes to this problem. Thank you for so eloquently pointing it out.

    • Thanks, Chandra. Lovely to have that feeling of impatience as “an indication that whatever I am doing is not working for the student(s), and it’s time to change gears…” I can echo your sentiments about the lack of consistent specialized training.

  2. Reblogged this on Working in Adult Literacy and commented:

    This is my most popular post, which has been viewed 4,336 times, nearly three times as many as the next most popular post. It reflects the difference between what you see and what you get when you look at good teaching, and captures a worry about how the world perceives the adult literacy practitioner. Since I first posted it, I have added the last sentence, based on a perceptive comment by Jenny Horsman. Thanks, Jenny!

    When I chose blogging as a way to share my ideas about teaching, the question of who is reading the blog popped up, as well as the related question, “How many are reading?” I’ve learned a lot about finding/keeping an audience since I started this project. Someone posted this piece to MetaFilter, which brought many readers to the site, which in turn caught the interest of WordPress editors, who chose it to be “freshly pressed,” and this in turn brought many more readers to the site. I had a taste of internet “fame” and discovered that I was even more vain than I had previously thought.

    It’s my most famous piece. Is it my best? Is it typical of the themes that I write about? Questions for me to ponder as I look at my blog as a whole.

    • Kate, I do feel that this particular piece (which I like very much!) encapsulates many of the ideas present in your other blog posts. It talks about respect for your students, respect for the skills you have that make you a good teacher, passion for your vocation, and the enormous amount of sheer work that everyone is doing in the classroom–you and the students both. I read your blog often for inspiration in my work. I hope you do keep writing it at least for a little while longer!

      • Thanks, Melinda. One thing you mention that I haven’t written explicitly about, but is at the heart of much of my practice, is taking care of the teacher. Maintaining my own self respect makes it so much easier to maintain respect for the students. And that respect for students is the basis of successful teaching.
        I know we are like minded about many things–I’ll refer readers to your excellent blog about your work in adult basic education:

love to hear your ideas or experiences!

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