How to Be a Proactive Teacher and Why It Matters

Author: Tom Hewlett
July 13, 2016

Think about your most recent teaching challenge. How did you handle it? Were you proactive or reactive? Did you look at all angles of the problem? How did you treat the people involved?0032-habit-01-be-proactive_stuard-miles

Maybe it’s a moment of shock: We have three new students to add to your roster on Monday (and there are no empty spaces in your room right now). Or it could be a moment that scares you: I couldn’t find you anywhere and it’s been 20 minutes since you were supposed to be back from music class.

Think about a situation that could occur, one that tends to test your intent to remain calm and effective. Now, for a moment, put yourself in that situation as though it were live and happening right in front of you: You’ve just come upon that situation, just walked in the door of your classroom, and here’s a humdinger of a challenge staring you in the face. You can see by the look on the face of your student, the school social worker, or a parent as they brace for your response to the situation. Imagine the emotion you are feeling: anger, fear, embarrassment, or fatigue, and the words starting to form in your mind. What you say next is going to be critically important. What are you going to do in the heat of the moment?

Here are a few things to consider to bolster yourself and remain in a proactive mindset now and in future situations.

  1. What you say matters. In spite of how familiar the old phrase about “sticks and stones…” may be to us, we are realistic enough to know that words truly matter. A teacher’s words carry significant weight. They can uplift, wound, or even destroy. So look at each challenging circumstance as an opportunity to model proactive behavior, particularly through your language choice. Once you’ve let those first responsive words out of your mouth, there is no reeling them back in, in spite of how badly you’d love to be able to do it. How can you communicate the worth and potential of this child, parent, or co-worker as you respond—even when the need is to discipline or correct behavior? Before you speak, take just a few seconds to pause and think about your next words. Make sure they have the impact you intended.
  2. Practice Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood. How many times have you reacted to what you thought was the reality, only to find out after it is too late that the true circumstance was much different? Next time, take a proactive approach. Start with a few clarifying questions to get a good handle on what’s going on and what’s really at stake for all of those involved. Some examples of a clarifying question might be:
    1. Is there anything else about this situation you think I should know?
    2. What led up to this situation?
    3. Was there anyone else involved that I don’t know about?
  3. Take stock of your share of ownership. Could the situation have been precipitated from something you said or did that contributed to this circumstance? Could your instructions have been less than clear? Did you provide all of the needed resources? Was your expectation of the nature of others’ performance reasonable? Could at least a portion of the responsibility for this situation reside with you? If so, how will you address that ownership in a way that lets others know that you are ready to claim and address your share of the dilemma?shutterstock_264221285_0
  4. State your job or responsibility as the teacher. You are here to love, teach, and discipline your students… among other things. In the heat of the moment, it can be profoundly helpful for you to clarify your intent—exactly what your end in mind is for this circumstance. In fact, you, as well as others, will be served by pausing to clarify the intended outcome and your role in achieving it. An example of a clarifying statement could be: I am here to teach AND to help you develop disciplined behavior, and nothing is going to prevent me from doing that. So, right at this moment, though you probably aren’t going to be pleased with what we need to do next, I want you to understand my end in mind.
  5. Team up and solve the problem together. If we remain in a position of absolute authority over someone or the situation, we risk fostering an adversarial relationship rather than a partnership. Keep in mind that the ultimate goal is to achieve maximum maturity, which is interdependence. Think about your student, the parent, the co-worker; they own a significant part of this problem and they know it. They don’t have the same perspective you do about the situation. In some cases, they don’t have the skill or experience either. Rather than polarizing yourself or them, move to position yourselves as a team working on the same problem together. An example of a teaming statement could be: Okay, we’ve got a problem here. But we are in this together and we’re going to solve this problem. As leaders, we strive continuously to do things that help communicate the worth and potential of others so clearly they are inspired to see it in themselves. Positioning someone as being inept in his or her role only alienates. At best, alienation produces dependency; at its worse, alienation produces negative synergy (hostility, belligerence, total withdrawal).

 The result we want to get in every tense situation is to resolve the problem. Let’s learn to see challenges as really an opportunity to model proactive behavior. That could be a significant Paradigm Shift that will position us to do several things that add value—to strengthen relationships and affirm the value of others long-term while addressing the immediate problem.

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