Notes on: Kuhlenschmidt, S. (1999) 'Promoting Internal Civility: Understanding Our Beliefs About Teaching and Students'. New Directions For Teaching And Learning, no. 77: 13—22

Dave Harris

We all need to recognize and accept our feelings, but 'the problem is inappropriate behaviour that occurs as a consequence of strong emotions' (13).  Intense emotions increase the risk of problematic behaviour.  In determining intensity, very much depends on 'what you say to yourself about an event (self statement or belief)'(14).  This implies that self statements in verbal forms precede emotional reactions.  It also follows that people make themselves 'angry or discouraged or related'.  Self statements intervene between cause and reaction.  Some self statements are more likely to generate strong emotions, and they are often 'literally illogical'.  They might be over generalisations, where one complaint raises doubts about general competence, or they can even be untrue [the example is saying that I must be perfect].  Given that personal perceptions are crucial, even statements such as '"he made me angry", are illogical'.

Our behaviour can also influence the self statements other individuals make.  And behaviour can be based on common assumptions grounded in local culture, sometimes placing particular responsibility on ourselves for the effects on others, as when we assume that teachers should be liked by everyone.  This assumption can lead to 'passive or overly accommodating behaviour' which can lead to more behaviour management problems.  We should realize that 'being liked by everyone is an illogical assumption'(15).

It is certainly possible to modify comments, to avoid condemnation in favour of more questions and reflective commentary.  We can also manage our own fears of being cheated overlooked or endangered by realizing that 'you may also get more than you deserve', and 'you learn to enjoy what you have now.  You may find that life is about the journey.  We can forgive your self and others for what fate has contributed to life'(16) [the exact opposite of critical pedagogy, of course, unless this is meant to be advice that you give students to make them more docile?].  It is necessary to question absolute beliefs and universal rules, since this can lead to 'great emotion', as can rigidity which invites a stage where 'emotions are more likely to be driven by events beyond [our] control'.  Generally, we need to replace strong beliefs, like those in the rules, with milder preferences.  These can lead to milder emotions, and more effective problem solving.  We should ask ourselves what assumptions are driving strong emotions, in self and in others, and go on to ask how the situation could 'be evaluated more realistically and accurately' (17).

It is also 'irrational to believe that every student must succeed'(18), except for educational planning and to motivate students.  We must remember that 'some students arrive at an educational institution not willing or ready to change or grow'.  Acknowledging this might help us increase the variety of interactions with students—'I can journey with them rather than lead them, at least ideally'.  Despite the common emphasis on learning to think critically, we must realize that 'individuals have varying tolerance for being challenged, depending on their life experiences and abilities'.

One technique might be to offer some 'generally applicable countering arguments to students before returning marked papers' (19), explaining that it might be normal to repeatedly edit papers, for example.  Teachers can also 'lead' students in identifying irrational beliefs about writing assignments.  A worse alternative is to 'take poor performance personally', by believing that all students ought to strive to achieve the best standards.  This can lead to seeing student failure as personal failure.

[Then some strange stuff about animals feeling helpless if they cannot control their circumstances].  It is difficult in that responding to what some students want can upset other students [the example is types of assessment].  Sometimes, this can lead to teachers realizing that they have an impossible task, and simply repeating their preferred patterns.  Or they might 'believe that teaching is a talent not a skill' (20) [defensively, presumably], or believe in particular ideologies as a solution to all teaching problems to be applied universally.  This can produce physical deterioration, even 'depression or addictive behaviour, especially when being evaluated' [if there is a strong management preference?].  It is often those who most value students and teaching who are at most risk, because important events, if difficult, can result in feeling helpless.  Repetition of encountering situations where we are not in control 'is more likely to result in problems'.

We need 'realistic self-evaluation' (21) and work towards an effective problem solving approach, not striving for impossible perfection, but aiming at attainable excellence.  We have to remember that our behaviours can affect the responses of other people, for example that 'remaining calm helps cue the person to stay calm.  Moving slowly and gently, yet firmly, encourages similar responses from the individual'.  However, those experiencing problems may be less able to attend and to interpret adequately, especially being 'incapable of sorting out what to attend to'.  Here, the firm direction might be important, such as directing 'attention explicitly to your face', asking the other to listen, and then giving calm direction for behaviour, the simpler the better.

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