First Year of Teaching / Best Practice
Teacher Passivity and Teacher Proximity
Today’s topic of teacher passivity and proximity to learning go together. I believe that there is a direct correlation between teacher passivity and student achievement. I also believe that when a teacher is within “a proximal distance” to a student, learning will improve. I base both of these assertions on many years of observations in classrooms of all ages and all levels.
Let us first take a look at what I refer to as the teacher’s proximal distance to learning. Is essential that teachers get out from behind the desk and move among the learners. The closer a teacher is to the learning activity the more focused a student will be. When a teacher is near a student, a healthy awareness of that presence will more than likely lead to a more thorough completion of the activity.
The physical presence of the teacher around the room is important, but what transpires between the student and the teacher when the teacher is in that proximal zone is critical. It may be a brief verbal exchange. It may be eye contact. It may be that pat on a shoulder. It very well could be something as simple as a favorable head nod. Many teachers, for whatever reason, have a comfort level in the front of the classroom or maybe it is behind a desk or a lectern. There is a certain degree of comfort and safety there. If there is a traditional seating arrangement, there is a good chance that those not seated near the front will be lost. The teacher must get out from behind any barrier. How else does one know what is going on in the rest of the room?
I will share two anecdotes that support my theory:
- The teacher is teaching in an older science lab. Hence, he is elevated on a small stage in front of the class. Students are arranged at traditional lab tables, two to a table in rows around the room. I was seated in the back. The instructor never moved from the center of the room in front of the blackboard. About half the class was engaged in other activities. I saw a young lady open a novel and place it upon her lap in a notebook and read for pleasure the entire period. Another young lady did a thorough job on her nails. Meanwhile, the teacher was oblivious to this and upon a discussion with him, thought it was great lesson. Believe or not, this was an Honors class!! The students were cheated on this day. The problem in part could have been solved by moving around the classroom.
- The class was arranged in four learning groups. The teacher was very proud of her learning stations. Each group was assigned a problem which required discussion and a solution to be shared with the class. In three of the four groups, there was an adult directly involved. (Classroom teacher, Special Education Co-Teacher or Paraprofessional) The groups rotated every 10 minutes. Each group of students when they arrived at station four, where there was no adult, took a ten-minute break. This was a waste of time and energy. Later, the teacher and I shared ways to solve this problem.
Both of these anecdotes speak in support of the need for the teacher to be in a proximal learning zone to the students. By being there and by being aware and proactive, our class instruction could be better. Teacher awareness will enhance learning.
Coupled with my theory about the proximal distance to learning is a theory on teacher passivity. This discussion is not about the concept of active vs. passive learning. It is about the passive teacher. I have seen many. They will hide behind a lecture. They will hide behind their belief that they are giving students information, and they are answering any questions that these students may have about the topic. This is the teacher that is going through the motions. They do not take the time to think up new ideas, and they fail to create any sorts of projects where they can work alongside the students and guide their growth (Freeschools, 2008).
The passive teacher comes into class with low student expectations. They fail to motivate students. They are disinterested, disconnected, and detached (Martin, 2014). Passive teachers are boring and will rarely connect with the students.
So why does this happen? There are a multitude of reasons. The easiest one to think of is that the teacher is beginning to burn out. When this happens, it is a signal that this teacher needs to take a step back and re-charge their battery in some way. Maybe a change in assignment or grade is called for. Maybe it will require a change of schools. In other cases, it might signal a change in district is needed, and for some, it might mean a change in careers is needed. When we see, this is happening it crucial that we point it out to each other. That is the most collegial thing we can do because many times the person experiencing it is the last to know. It could be a health situation or a family situation. In these cases, we need to provide the support needed to help this person through the crisis.
Another reason that comes to mind is that we tend to teach as we were taught. If you were constantly lectured to, it will be easy for you to fall into the same pattern. Especially if you liked and admired a teacher you had. In this case, we must continue to drive personal professional development to help this individual change his/her pedagogy. Our undergraduate institutions must help by providing site based internship where interns can grow and learn by experiencing the world of teaching. You become a better teacher by teaching. Let us break down some of the traditional walls that bind us.
I would like to close by once again referring back to what Malcolm Gladwell wrote about on numerous occasions. It is the concept of “withitness”. This is the ability of a teacher to communicate expected behaviors to the students without ever saying a word. It is the notion of having “eyes in the back of your head”. To become a great teacher, you need to have “withitness”. You develop “withitness” by teaching, teaching, and more teaching. In this case, practice may lead to perfection (Gladwell, 2008).
Thankfully, I have seen far more teachers that motivate, stimulate, and inspire than the passive teacher who disconnects. I thank all of those who work to stay connected and continually change and adapt to meet the needs of our students. Kudos to you! I am proud to have worked with you and proud to know you.
Gladwell, M. (2008). The Most Likely to Succeed. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/12/15/most-likely-to-succeed-malcolm-gladwell
Martin, A. (2014). The Disconnected Teacher. Retrieved from http://www.salemnetwork.org/blog/the-disconnected-teacher