The How Versus the What of Teaching

By Gina Simm

In my first year of retirement I’m doing a lot of reflecting on my years as a teacher. One of the big decisions a retired teacher has to make is whether or not to substitute teach. This in itself is a driving force for reflection. The reason I came to the answer of no is simple; it’s too stressful. Just looking back at preparing a sub plan as a teacher is stress- ful because it’s all about minimizing the inevitable anxiety of the kids who are counting on their beloved teacher to keep them reassured and at ease. Forget about the math lesson and it’s content. It’s about how the lesson gets executed. Teaching is more about the how than it is about the what. 

It took me a while to be conscious of this phenomenon. The how, of course is way hard- er than the what. So, for many years, as hard as I tried and as amazing as I could be at times, I felt like a failure. That’s a bold statement but in all honesty I wasn’t happy with myself too much of the time. I would feel frustrated with the class and then upset with myself because deep down I could tell that I was missing something. 

What I was missing became clearer and clearer when I started learning Nonviolent Communication. At the heart of NVC is the concept of empathy. Empathy is the oppo- site of problem-solving and problem-solving was what I was putting my energy into. It was behind all of the how of my teaching. I thought it was my job to problem-solve. If I could come up with a solution for the problem in front of me at any given moment, I felt like I was doing my job. If that didn’t help, I would tell myself that at least I was do- ing my job. What I was missing is that much of the time the people with the problem are not seeking a solution, they are seeking relief. And relief does not usually come from a solution. It comes from a listening ear. It comes from the feeling that someone cares; that someone wants to understand; that one is no longer alone with the distress. It took awhile for me to grasp this but when I did, I began to experiment with it. 

Sure enough, being present and really wanting to understand was a life-saver for all concerned. I couldn’t believe what a shift it was in my teaching world. A first-grader would come to me with “She hates me!” I would relax and say something like “That’s gotta hurt!” “YES!” “Let’s check in later about this. It’s a big deal.” Then of course, I’d go back to whatever I needed to do in a very densely packed morning of timers, books, pa- pers and color pencils. Checking in later never happened because that first grader didn’t need to. 

I did many experiments with my students and the notion of giving and receiving empa- thy. The more NVC I learned, the more depth I created in the how of my teaching. I in- stituted empathy cards, taught the class about making requests vs. demands, shared the wonders of expressing regret, the value of appreciation and the importance of shar- ing power. Year by year my classroom turned into a place where trust, compassion and empowerment became possible and realized. 

Ultimately, I implemented three systems to plug all that I was doing into. After sharing the systems with people, I was asked to write a book. It took me a while to envision the whole idea of sharing my gifts with the world and thereby making a difference in the world. Now it is all happening. The vision is realized.

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