A Look at the Systematic and Institutionalized Gaslighting of Teachers — and Why We Must Stop It

Updated: Jan 27

Part 2 of 4: Teacher Preparation (and Inservice Professional Development) Must Correct Irrational Ideas About Teaching and Support Development of a Strong, Confident Professional Identity

Higher education and school system leadership within teacher preparation programs must bravely face and address irrational expectations and provide strategies for new teachers to set and maintain their personal boundaries. This will require support from state programs such as the Professional Development Schools (PDS) model to engage professors and clinicians in new ways of thinking to include school-based mentor teachers. For example, higher education school-based professors and mentors must let go of the hegemonic belief that the first year is a tortuous rite of passage that all new teachers must experience.


Do we really want to wire new teachers for anxiety that results in departure from the profession in three to five years? What a waste of our time and energy. Do we understand how the brain learns, and how it associates emotions with learning experiences, well enough to see the incredible, even insane, folly of associating learning to be an educator with feelings of despair from the start? So, teacher preparation must self-reflect, question irrational and ineffective beliefs and practices, and allow for joy in the process of learning. Of course, teacher preparation should be rigorous and challenging, but not devastating.

Supporting and reinforcing teachers’ development of a strong sense of professional identity should be the priority of all school systems and teacher preparation programs — even over curricular initiatives. If fulfilled, these preparation programs will better prepare resilient teachers who create the opportunities for student learning. Teachers of any level of experience who are overwhelmed by unreasonable and even impossible expectations are not as effective and are more likely to leave altogether. Providing time (and trust) for teachers or interns to talk and build relationships with one another without a strict agenda would be a much-needed breath of fresh air.

Teaching should be rewarding and fun. The moments of laughter and joy I have encountered as a teacher are transcendent. These moments occurred most often when I felt respected and trusted as a professional.

Pre-service Interns Should be Hired, Paid, and Provisionally Certified as Co-Teachers

When I served as Director of Student Teaching for a liberal arts college’s Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program, the policy was that students paying for an education could not be paid for an internship. Now, as then, I don’t think this makes a lick of sense.

As stated in the first post of this series, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona is considering pathways for certification of paraeducators. While I don’t disagree with this plan, I think teacher interns are being overlooked as an abundant, enthusiastic, and well-trained source of teaching professionals. Further, we already know teachers are overworked and stressed to the breaking point. Finally, the co-teaching model has already been shown as effective for serving students, especially those with specific needs. Why not rename intern teachers as co-teachers and welcome them into the classroom as paid education partners?

Once teachers-in-training have reached the internship stage, most have already completed observations and short stints in classrooms. They have completed the majority, if not all, of their coursework. These individuals are desirable employees who also often happen to carry student debt. Hiring these intern teachers as provisionally certified co-teachers would be a win for these reasons:

  • interns will be more empowered as co-teachers. They will have more, if not equal, decision-making authority and will truly be part of the faculty with the same privileges and protections as their colleagues

  • experienced teachers will have more support

  • students will have two adults in the room to support their learning, small group instruction, and productive conduct

  • school systems will have a ready supply of teachers they can hire and fully certify who will be more experienced, confident, and better able to work independently or nurture the next provisional co-teacher

  • teachers will have an additional year to build investments, savings, and reduce debt — increased financial well-being alone can alleviate a lot of anxiety

Honoring educators with a salary for their work, even in the preparation period, will go a long way toward starting new teachers off on a more positive trajectory and can derail that old saw that the first year of teaching must be overwhelming. The result will be a healthier, less-stressed new teacher workforce less likely to feel the need to leave the profession due to accumulated stress.

In-service Professional Development Should Focus on Developmental Stages and Brain-Based Understandings of Student Behaviors

A teacher would not dream of speaking sharply to a six-month-old for not standing up and walking, nor should she expect a student in a heightened state of stress to instantly “calm down” upon command. We know how that the amygdala responds to stress with a “fight or flight” reaction, so why do we see so many situations escalate unnecessarily. I believe it has to do with teachers being stressed themselves and their understandable response to the perception of disrespect. Teachers are dealing with more and more disrespect from adults: policy makers, parents, the general community, now exacerbated even more so by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s harder than ever to stay calm when classroom situations arise. Teachers are human beings, too. The majority of teachers will welcome professional development and refreshers on effective ways to work with students to deescalate tensions and present information in ways that students can receive it best.

I remember teaching fractions to fifth graders. I started by asking students if they ever stood on the playground and compared each other as better than others based on the age at which they started walking. Of course, they looked at me as if I had just spouted nonsense. (Which, of course, I had.) I reassured them that I knew that of course that wouldn’t make any sense. I then compared this to learning fractions. I said that children’s brains were pre-wired for walking at a certain age, and that the same was true for understanding fractions.

I explained my concern that some students might give up too quickly if they didn’t “get” fractions right away and that they might even go so far as to label themselves “dumb” or “stupid” in math. I shared with them that this is what I had done to myself. I told them that I wished my fifth-grade teacher had learned that the different kids’ brains develop differently. I promised them that if they stayed patient, we would all “get” fractions together by the end of the year. I am not a better teacher than others — I just had exposure to children’s developmental processes applied to learning.

I also learned about “schema theory” and how new information needs to attach to information already present as well as be perceived as meaningful and useful. So “building background” became more purposeful and meaningful to me as a teacher, and I saw that showing students “why” would lead to retention.

Learning these concepts once during the preparation program is not enough. Teachers need refreshers and opportunities to discuss and share experiences with other members of the faculty.

A Word About Lesson Plan Expectations that Lean Toward Lunacy

One can feel the depths of despair and almost see the tear stains on so many teachers’ social media posts about lesson plan expectations that are killing instruction — and creating levels of stress that are completely unnecessary. There are indeed good tenets of instruction that can be planned for and integrated into instruction, but somewhere along the way some concrete thinkers decided that these plans should follow the same linear format. Then someone who didn’t want to leave an administrative office (and, whether they were consciously aware of it or not, didn’t trust teachers) decided that every step should be written in so much detail that there was no longer any energy left for actual instruction. Then a lot of not-teachers decided this was a very good idea. They were so gleeful to have this illusion of control that they couldn’t stop, and the pacing guide quickly followed.

I’m going to say it — this is all nonsense. My teacher preparation program taught me the elements of instruction that work, but never proscribed any particular order. In fact, I learned that relevance should be infused throughout the lesson, that building background could happen on the spot as soon as the teacher intuited the need. That generating enthusiasm was an ongoing act modeled by the instructor. I learned that curriculum is not found in a three-ring binder or on a .org or .edu screen - it is found in the lived experience shared in a classroom among teachers and students. It cannot, and should not, be completely planned for.

During my teaching internship, I met my mentor and asked her about her expectations for seeing my lesson plans. She asked me if I had learned about good instruction. I said yes. She said to jot notes on an index card to give me confidence but also said that I should not be afraid to deviate from that plan if I felt the need. She said that what she saw from me in the classroom with the students was what really mattered, and she wanted me to place most of my energy into being with the students. Thank you, Mrs. Mote. You were wise indeed. I only wish your wisdom had spread to prevent what is happening with lesson plans these days.

Expectations for lesson plans in too many school systems have grown monstrous to the point of absurdity. Supervisors expect to be able to walk into a classroom and be able to see instruction unfold exactly as written. How sad that education professionals themselves have become so brainwashed into believing that the lesson plan should be the be all and end all that they can see the folly of this policy. The linear and immutable lesson plan has become a cage for instruction. Cages cause occupants to either rebel or give up. Teachers see this in their students every day. And now we are seeing it in teachers.

I know it’s important to teach elements of good instruction in preparation programs and review them at intervals during in-service professional development. Supervisors should expect teachers to note their focus standards, their goals, the relevance and their plans to address students’ needs as appropriate and then get out of the teacher’s way to allow a living, vibrant, adaptive curriculum to emerge like an oasis in a desert. Does anyone think a teacher will deliberately slide by and not work hard if lesson plans are not required? Does anyone think teachers will deliberately let their students down? Those people have been gaslighted to believe that teachers are not competent and are unworthy of being trusted as professionals. Any teacher that doesn’t live up to professional standards should be addressed as an outlier — because that’s what they are. Unlock the cage, and let the lesson thrive.

Next Steps

Educators at all levels must take this opportunity to rethink what teachers are told, reevaluate the unhealthy expectations that are communicated, reexamine the ways new teachers are brought into the profession, and review and discuss important concepts regularly as part of professional development. Simple changes in how we pass the torch as educators can make a world of difference to the retention of healthy, happy teachers, and therefore, the effectiveness of our schools.

The next installment in this series will examine the flawed view of teachers’ role as disciplinarian and explore more sensible, and proactive alternatives.

References

Blitzer, R. (2021). “Education secretary ‘All hands on deck’ to address school staffing shortages.” Fox Business, Education: https://www.foxbusiness.com/politics/education-secretary-school-staffing-shortages?cmpid=fb_fbn


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