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. Your post indirectly addresses what is fashionable in education today — that teachers must be kind and patient in order to be considered effective. I would be frustrated by such an evaluation. I would rather be called effective, professional and thorough. Like you, I am neither kind, nor particularly patient, for that matter. Amen, sister.

  2. Great post! I really do think that administration dumbs down the whole picture of being a teacher… this coming from a 17 year old, I hear teachers all the time complaining about how they’re treated by administration. I think it really does have a lasting affect on teachers. It’s hard enough to want to come to work whenever your being under payed, never the less unappreciated! I commend you on taking stand! Enjoyed reading, have a good one!

  3. Hmmm, since when are patience and kindness the antitheses of professionalism and craft, and therefore condescending? There are teachers that do all the things you do, and yet come across as cross, crass, uncaring, impatient, or unkind. Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

  4. Hi Kate,

    Great post!! Reminds me of the way well-trained, thoughtful, hard working childcare workers in a play-based learning program get dissed for “just letting the kids play.”

    I want my administrator to ask me, “What are you trying to do in class? How’s it working? What’s not working, and what are your thoughts? How can I help?” Then (if they must), I want them to assess me on the strength of my responses. I feel like i should be able to narrate and explain my work to my manager: I’m not at all comfortable that my manager can (or should) narrate and explain my work to me.

    Am I a patient teacher? Um… no. But I’m working really, really hard on keeping still and not interfering when, for the moment, nobody needs me. Oh, and doing that thing where, after someone asks a question, you give it that extra *beat* before answering – just in case they’re in the middle of finding the answer, and their question was really the act of them thinking aloud.

    • Hadn’t thought of the parallel with pre-school teachers, but it’s exactly right. You make a subtle point in your last paragraph–I didn’t get it until I re-read it, so I’ll ask readers here to go back and take another look.

  5. Thank you for this post, I found it quite inspiring, and although it catapulted me into a completely different headspace I hope I will have time to explore the topic you have raised in more depth. I wrote a blog post mentioning you here: http://writingslogger.com/2013/05/24/my-feminism-and-by-the-way-it-found-my-man-its-not-my-man-who-founded-it/ I would be curious to know your thoughts on feminism and teaching in the context of ‘kindness and patience’. 🙂

    • I read your post, and that led me to a couple of other connections you made. Thanks for that journey! Hard to answer your questions in this tiny format, so maybe I’ll write another blog post about it; in the meantime, I’d refer you to a historical piece: three introductory pieces by Janet Isserlis, Jenny Horsman and myself in Making Connections: Literacy and EAL Curriculum from a Feminist Perspective. http://www.nald.ca/library/research/making_c/cover.htm

  6. Thanks, Kate, for a pithy, authentic reflection that says so many things we deeply believe. I’ve sent links to my favorite developmental writing colleague and to the chief academic officer of my college, as well as linking your post to today’s post on our blog at http://www.pleasureinlearning.com. I will be contacting you by email for permission to reblog. It’s great to wake up on Monday and find a kindred spirit!

  7. Hi Kate,

    I’m enjoying the WIAL blogs very much. Two things: 1. The last blog makes my outlook screen go all milky and then die out, though it could be something about my outlook; and 2. I don’t think of kindness as a character trait or as condescending. I think of it as a skill and a complicated, hard one, and high praise. But that could be something about semantics. I hope you and E. are well, she said kindly and sincerely.

    Love,

    Arleen

    • 1. Don’t know why that’s happening–haven’t heard from anyone else about the problem.
      2. Interesting take. Do you think all the virtues are skills? Or is the skill in monitoring yourself and having the will to act? Perhaps a discussion best suited to be had over a glass of something bubbly.

  8. This is a fantastic post. I’ve had similar observations as a teacher in high schools and community colleges. You sound like a thoroughly effective teacher. Thanks for sharing!

  9. This is very informative. I wondered once if i could become a teacher. Now I think I don’t have that much capacity to become one at least not for now.

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  11. This is a great post. I work with homeless addicts, and I could relate to a lot of what you wrote. I especially appreciate what you wrote about your privilege. I love how you wrote about the responsibility that comes with privilege; I don’t think I’ve thought about it like that before. I’ve never framed “not looking down on someone” as a social justice statement. It’s a humbling reminder for me. Thank you.

    • Thank you, Serafina, for making the connections between the work you do and work in the classroom. So often the similarities are in attitudes, political stances, personal relationships, although the work looks different on the surface. So many connections.

      • A lot of my folks were sp. ed. students as children, maybe didn’t get their high school diploma or GED, and several of them can’t read. In fact, one woman just started being tutored, (the first time I’ve seen that for one of our folks in six years.)
        My mom (who is a sp. ed. teacher) and I ‘joke’ (a little gallows humor) that we get many of the same people, just a different points in their lives. 🙂

  12. Wow! When I read you, I thought it was a spam. Anyway.
    I didn’t teach literacy but taught media technic to higher level young students from 18 years and above. I was journalist at the same time and gave them the opportunity to criticise daily all the production of the national TV. So they criticise my work before the college. I was very honest with them and received some of their criticism very well. I also explained the reason why things were done in certain ways due to editorial line. I agree with carrickjason who said: “a good teacher is one that can teach its listeners how to learn for themselves”.
    My most contribution was to live the love that I have for my job. And this was what was mostly the contagious thing and help students to want to learn from themselves. I also had a tutor who was evaluating me monthly too.
    And finally I love the idea about assertiveness training or course that somebody mentioned. This course helps me to challenge the power used at the higher level. I welcomed criticism but not those empty ones stated by others from their own perception. I know that kindness is a virtue. I can be kind but how will people know that I am kind if for them it is when they witness you demonstrating that? If you don’t live with me, don’t witness my course and don’t have a camera behind me, how then will you know if I am kind or not? They are many people kind out there who do things without anyone seeing them. Do they need the public’s approval to be known as such? No.

  13. Thanks Kate for such an interesting post on several levels. Through the better part of our early lives, while we grow as students, we think of teachers as the top of the hierarchy. The know-all be-all. Your post highlights the idea that as a teacher, like everyone, you are learning, growing and seek critical feedback on your work. Also, as someone who has for several years felt frustration at my supervisor asking me to write my own annual evaluation, I was envious of the ease at which you could create such an eloquent summary of your own skills. Well done you. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

    • As teachers we are required so often to evaluate the work of our students; and we are often judged by people both inside and outside our programs. So it stands to reason that we’d want to be evaluated in some meaningful way. But seriously, it took a long time of quiet reflecting on the “kind and patient” comment to figure out why it didn’t sit well with me, although my immediate reaction was strong and visceral. Thanks for you comments.

  14. Thank you for this thought-provoking post. It shows a reflective teaching practice in action….Bravo! I used to teach in/administer an adult ESL program before I left last year to help my husband build his photography business. This article would make great discussion materia for a program improvement/professional development staff meeting. BRAVO!

  15. So, you’re actually an unkind and impatient person, but manage to hide that in order to keep a job you consider important, but unfairly compensated, for personal reasons? Or was it political? In any case, you’d like to avoid the condescension of kindness, if possible.

    • I’m usually quite a kind person, but I am never good at covering impatience with patience. My point was that teaching adult literacy is more complex, and requires more skill, than that administrator allowed for. In my experience, many people share her views: if you are a patient, warm, caring person, you can teach reading, writing and basic math. I disagree.

      • I was thinking pretty much exactly what Mikels said after reading your post, but your argument is well written, and your point taken: positive personality qualities and interpersonal skills *alone* are not what make a good teacher, but rather the professional skills and ability to teach well, and the evaluator was not giving you credit for your teaching skills so much as for your personality. That said, I think you must also be a patient, warm, caring person, at least to some degree, only because I think all the best teachers are. 🙂 And even if you are not (or don’t think you are, or think it doesn’t matter either way), you’re still without question doing this world a good service, and thank you for that.

  16. Very thought provoking! Thank you for your clarity and honesty. I’ll be teaching again soon and these thoughts feel like the core of what to remember…

  17. I love your analysis of the complexity of teaching–that juggling act which requires the brain to fire in a million simultaneous directions. The unique perspective which you so beautifully describe is only apparent from our side of the classroom. Too bad your evaluator wasn’t a teacher. (Or was she?)

  18. In my mind, a good teacher is one that can teach its listeners how to learn for themselves. I always try to teach my listeners in such a way that they won’t need me anymore. To me this becomes something more than teaching. Its more like inspiring or empowering. And it does a lot to help their individual creativity. Its easy to focus on what you teach, and how you’re teaching it, but there is a bigger question here, and that is ‘why?’.

    I recently dropped out of college because I was too fixated on the how and what and had completely lost sense of my why. When I found it, I realized that it didn’t match what i was doing in higher ed. The decision has made all the difference.

    I’d be more inclined to stay if i knew there were more teachers like you though. This was a great post. I love to see educators taking education so seriously. It is rare, it seems.

    • Thanks for joining in here. This reflection on teaching came in a quiet time of reflection–hard to do when you’re in the thick of day-to-day work with students.

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  20. Hello Kate, I just had to take a second and tell you that your post gave me much hope. There should be more teachers [people] like you… and this is not in any way an attempt at casual one-dimensional compliments, I really mean this. If we all took the time to analyze and dissect every situation this way, we would feel a lot more fulfilled with the way we live our lives and the decisions we make. I really, really enjoyed this and your Freshly Pressed status is MUCH deserved! Congrats! 🙂

    • I agree, although it takes a certain type of person to enjoy this kind of attention to the small details of human interaction. I’m glad to be that kind of person, but I know it annoys many good and fulfilled people.

  21. At risk of sounding like a spam message, I’m going to say this is the best post on teaching I’ve ever read! As a teacher myself, I definitely agree with you on the patience – there must be drive underneath a patient exterior, teaching must not be allowed to stagnate. We must respect our students and work *with* them to get the best results. Thank you for your wise words, sounds like you’re teaching in the best possible way. 🙂

  22. Love this post! I tutored remedial level English and Reading classes at my local community college for a while, so I have some idea of what you’re going through. It’s hard to maintain that balance of understanding an sympathy paired with the need to help the “tutee” (as we called them) reach the professor’s expectations.

  23. Why do these people’s opinions matter so much to you? If they have any unreasonable power over your life, change your mind or change your teaching venue. No passionate teacher deserves hobbling, especially when freedom is only one decision away. Those who elevate deserve to feel elevated. Rock on.

    • Their opinions don’t “matter so much.” They provided me with an opportunity to reflect on my teaching and on their ideas about what it means to teach adult literacy.

  24. Kate you say: “And my students respond, not because they like me, but because I’m teaching!” and i want to add “and because they are learning” – this sort of non-judgmental attention to what students are doing, what they need, what mistakes they are making, and what you can do differently to reach them makes a difference, as you know of course, and students learn more successfully! So then of course they do like you – and they are amazed that you are so “kind and patient” with them 🙂 because they didn’t really think they were worth any effort, etc. etc…. Thanks for the clarity of this articulation. Of course as always i love your work because for me it is not only wonderful teaching for everyone, but also vital teaching for those who have experienced violence and are full of self-doubt and can so easily get snagged on feeling worthless. IronicallyI think though students may think you are “kind and patient” when they really experience someone just being kind and patient it doesn’t boost their self-esteem or their success like your careful focused teaching does – because as you so eloquently said if i (the student) need your (the teacher) patience then it simply confirms that i am a bit useless, hard to teach, too slow, not smart enough – all the things that every survivor of violence who tries to learn is convinced they are…. Thanks for showing what good teaching looks like.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jenny. You made me remember a student in our program who said, “I learned I was teachable!” with such surprise and triumph in her voice. So many of our students come, as you say, full of self doubt. It never hurts to assume that everyone in the class will have experienced violence in some way in their lives, and that experience will affect their way of learning, and their ability to focus on learning. I encourage everyone to check out your site, http://www.LearningandViolence.net

  25. Kate, I really appreciated reading this piece. You’ve articulated so many things I’ve felt as an instructor but haven’t put a name to. I think many people are surprised to find out what it really takes to teach basic literacy and numeracy (and that it involves more than just being kind and patient).

    Among the many things I’ve taught, two of my favourites have been fundamental ESL and adult basic literacy. I really love the work and am passionate about it. When people have observed me teaching those classes or have heard me talk about them, they invariably say, “You must be so patient. How do you do it?” I usually say, “I just look patient on the outside.” But I like what you’ve said better: we do it by being knowledgeable, skilled instructors who draw on our experience and apply it, adapting constantly and being aware of so many things at once, including our students’ emotions and how that will affect their learning.

    I think part of the issue is that when we are good at what we do in the classroom, it looks easy. But the reason it looks easy is because we’re good at it and working hard at it! I love it, but it requires a tremendous amount of knowledge and skill, and that needs to be acknowledged.

    Thanks for a great post.

  26. I wanted to respond to Chip’s post.

    The problem I have with kindness is that it is usually a judgement passed by someone on themselves or others such as “That was unkind of me to not give that person money” or “What a kind soul that woman is.” Same with generous, humility and patience (as well as their opposites). These judgements are often confused with or passed off as emotions. I came across a useful distinction a few months ago that helped clarify this for me. Kindness was distinguished from tenderness (or the gentleness Kate mentioned feeling). I might do something that is considered ‘kind’ and not feel tender and loving at all so how kind is that!

    Maybe administrators think it is their job to pass judgement and give opinions when they are evaluating a teacher (or teachers of students, for that matter) but even there I think observations of specific behaviour are more useful than opinions or assumptions about what may or may not be feeling or motivating someone to act.

    • Kindness is a virtue not a feeling. A short-tempered man who stops and helps a stranger with a flat is kind, but a tender-hearted man who drives by sighing over the stranger’s plight is not, no matter how either man feels. However, I agree that evaluations should provide observations of specific behaviors to support their conclusions, and that such observations are very useful. Nevertheless, the job of the evaluator is not done if he or she doesn’t provide a succinct conclusion based on those observations. Such a conclusion is a judgment or opinion – an evaluation, if you will.

  27. I’m not sure I understand your dislike of kindness. It has a long history as a solid virtue. I also am not sure what you think kindness is if it is not working for social justice or fairness. To my mind, far from being condescending, kindness must arise out of genuine humility. The humble are kind; the proud are condescending. I also take issue with your contention that patience depends on impatience. Certainly we become aware of a need for patience only when we are impatient, but again, patience has a long-standing reputation as a virtue, not a vice. Patience also requires humility. The proud are impatient; the humble are patient. You let learning occur at its own pace. That sounds like patience to me.

    • Certainly kindness and patiences are virtues. But being virtuous in this way does not make me a good teacher. The evaluator who focused on my virtues did nothing to improve my teaching or to help me understand why she gave me a grade of “excellent.”

      Thanks for weighing in on this, Diana and Chip.

    • So, let me get this straight: human beings cannot be proud and kind at the same time, or proud and patient? And if they desire patience and/or kindness, they have to master humility first before they see a speck of either? My bullshit meter is burying the needle.

      People are more complex than a nursery rhyme. They learn things in varied and often roundabout ways. And thank goodness, otherwise what a boring ride it would be to wisdom. Pride is not a vice. Any teacher can tell you that if you boost a student’s pride in themselves, they naturally elevate in sundry ways, not least among them kindness and patience with themselves and others, often in the classroom.

      As for condescension, I refer you to your own post for samples.

      • By pride I do not mean human dignity. I mean arrogance, conceit. Such pride prevents learning because it refuses to admit it doesn’t know something. I apologize for appearing condescending. I’m just trying to understand.

        • Thank you Chip and others in this little thread for carrying on with expressing your ideas and feelings. It is hard to have a conversation in little snippets like this, and I know and appreciate the time and care spent behind the scenes in reflection, conversation with others, drafting replies, and so on.

    • Thank you, Chip, for voicing my reaction as well. And thank you, Kate for writing such an insightful piece!

      My mother and my mother-in-law are both teachers, my mother being the Head of Science for a long time at the high school I went to, and my mother-in-law a primary school teacher aide and reliever. I have always said I would never be a teacher because I haven’t got the patience – and it’s too much hard work! However, after giving a presentation in one of my post-grad psychology classes, and very much enjoying the experience, I am starting to reconsider my position – though I am only interested in teaching at a university level.

      Your post made me think about other ways of conceptualizing patience, because I do think I have the capacity to observe and analyse like this. It’s why I want to become a psychologist, after all!

  28. Beautifully written Kate. I love that you make this point. It makes me a little crazy when people talk about “kindness” and “patience” as soft skills essential for teaching. Your blog is shining a light on how, despite the fact that good teachers make it look easy, the skills they employ are neither hard nor soft, but hard won.

    Your post made me think of this:
    “But what makes a good teacher? When Doug Lemov conducted his own search for those magical ingredients, he noticed something about most successful teachers that he hadn’t expected to find: what looked like natural-born genius was often deliberate technique in disguise.” from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/07/magazine/07Teachers-t.html?ref=magazine&pagewanted=all&_r=0

    and a little about what Michael Wesch recently wrote about empathy and teaching:
    “This is in no way a call to abandon method. Quite the contrary, it is a call to learn about as many methods and techniques as possible, and as many technologies as possible – not so you can load up your course with as many “good” ones as possible, but so that you can call forth those that might be good given the way your particular encounter with your students and work evolves.” here http://mediatedcultures.net/smatterings/why-good-classes-fail/

    • Thanks so much for your comment and these links, Tracey. I read the first one, a long article that led me down a trail of research and thinking; I’ll get to the other one today.

  29. Hi Kate. I had a curious reaction to your post. I felt very defensive on behalf of the administrators. What was that about! I am not administrator. Mostly I am student with a knee-jerk reaction to those in power. What was deeper, though, was my own feelings of inadequacy about failings to think critically and, from that perspective, offer feedback. So much easier to offer generalities and platitudes. As a student in at least two groups where evaluation is a part of the learning (Toastmasters and a therapy/spiritual group) I know how hard it is, especially having an education focused on rote learning and devoid of critical thinking skills. I found your analysis both of your own teaching and the response you received from your evaluators to be a useful demonstration of these skills. I also recall suggestions from assertive training workshops I took many years ago to be useful. Be specific. Say what you saw and heard. Say what I feel, not what I think someone else feels. Sounds so easy!

    • It is, as you say, hard to give useful feedback; we don’t get much training in it, and again, as you say, it starts with some skill in analytical thinking.
      I admit I have taken advantage of this blog, and a lot of hindsight, to work out why my administrator’s comments were so off base. At the time, I had an immediate visceral reaction, but no words to say to her what I wrote in my post. In other words, I couldn’t give her feedback on the feedback she gave to me.
      Still, you’ve got it in your last few lines: “Be specific. Say what you saw and heard. Say what I feel, not what I think someone else feels.”
      It does sound easy, but it starts out hard. Gets easier, though, if you practice in situations and with people where stakes are not high.

      • Yes, to all this. I have used NVC (non-violent communication, sometimes known as ‘needs based communication’) as a framework to help with the words. “When I read this post, I felt encouraged because I teach adults in business workshops and I do some of what was written about so my need for validation was met; I felt hopeful because my son is going through school and I have a need for respect for him; and I felt challenged because I saw things that were new to me and my need for learning and development was met.”

        Long-winded way to say I liked the post, but also very specific 😉

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  31. this is cool stuff Kate, I really engage with your approach to your teaching! I’m looking forward to seeing what people teaching on my MA are like, you have given lots to observe about where people might be coming from in their approach! thank you

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