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The Impact of Teachers: A Story of Indelible Memories and Self-Esteem

By: Robert Brooks

Dr. Robert Brooks

In the workshops I offer teachers about fostering student self-esteem, I pose the following questions: "Do you believe you have a long-lasting impact on the lives of your students? Five, ten, twenty years from now, will your students remember you or experiences from your class? And if so, what do you hope they will remember?"

I ask these questions because I have spoken with many teachers who wonder if they truly have an impact on the children and adolescents in their classrooms. Doubts about their possible influence are often more pronounced when teachers talk about students who are burdened with learning difficulties -- students who frequently experience school as the environment in which their deficits rather than their strengths are displayed.

Obviously, whether teachers believe they have an impact on the lives of their students is linked to their own self-esteem and their own sense of competence. When people believe that what they are doing is of little consequence, their motivation and energy will be minimal, and they cannot help but convey this to others. When those others are students, what will result is a school environment devoid of excitement and learning and filled with boredom and perhaps anger.

Descriptions of our own teachers and of ourselves

In attempting to examine teacher impact, I have asked teachers to think about one teacher whom they really liked when they were students. I then ask them to describe that teacher, which prompts such words as "demanding but supportive," "caring," "was interested in us," "was excited about what she taught," "had a good sense of humor." Next, I ask the audience if they ever recall being overjoyed, when they were students, upon learning that one of their teachers was out sick. The question typically evokes some laughter. When asked for descriptions of this teacher, I have heard "intimidating," "demeaning," "boring," "dull," "never seemed interested in us."

Next, I say, "imagine for a moment that I ask all of you to leave and bring in your students and ask them to describe you, what words would you hope they use? What words do you think they would use? Just as when you were a student, you had an image of your teachers, what is the image that your students have of you? What do you want that image to be?"

Indelible memories of school

In addition to this exercise, in my all-day workshops I have requested teachers to complete an anonymous questionnaire. The first question asks, "Please describe briefly one experience that you had with an educator when you were a student that reinforced your self-esteem. What grade were you in at the time?" The second question asks, "Please describe, briefly, one experience that you had with an educator, when you were a student, that lessened your self-esteem. What grade were you in at the time?"

Similar to the first exercise, I have been impressed with the strong emotions that these questions trigger. Teachers eagerly want to talk about their own childhood memories of school (the conversations at lunch during my all-day workshops are typically dominated by discussions of positive and negative memories of teachers), sharing with me how recent the memories seem, even though for some these memories are more than 50 years old. I became convinced that these memories of teachers persist, continuing to influence our lives years later -- they are indeed indelible memories, indicative of the lifelong influence that a teacher can have.

This conviction is shared by others. Psychologist Julius Segal, in looking at what helps children overcome adversity, wrote that "one factor turns out to be the presence in their lives of a charismatic adult -- a person from whom they gather strength. And in a surprising number of cases, that person turns out to be a teacher." Similarly, a Massachusetts Department of Education report about at-risk students noted, "Possible the most critical element to success within school is a student developing a close and nurturing relationship with at least one caring adult. Students need to feel that there is someone within school whom they know, to whom they can turn, and who will act as an advocate for them."

Teachers' responses to my workshop exercises and to my questionnaire reinforced my belief about the significant impact teachers have on students. However, I have also been curious about what the nature of this impact might be, about what are the specific kinds of memories my questionnaire would call forth. My curiosity is not simply academic, for I think that if we discover certain themes emerging from these vivid memories, these same themes might be equally relevant for students in today's world. I reason that teachers' memories might serve as helpful guides in their attempts to provide positive experiences and avoid negative experiences for current students. What is done in the classroom today becomes the indelible memories of tomorrow.

The positive memories

What follows are some representative memories described by teachers when completing my questionnaire. As you read them, ask what information they provide about what students perceive as significant experiences in schools. First the positive:

  • "I remember an exceptional American history teacher in high school during my junior year. I was impressed with his love of the subject and his teaching talent. He went out of his way throughout the year to encourage me to speak up in class. He sensed that I was shy, so, in measured steps and with great skill he asked more and more of me in terms of participating and projecting in discussions. He believed in me and gently pushed me to face what I found hardest to do -- speak in the public arena. I will never forget him."
  • "In the third grade, I was chosen to help get the milk and straws. In the fifth grade, I was given a major part in a school show."
  • "In the fourth grade, my teacher let me run the film projector (tread, rewind, etc.). I was otherwise very rambunctious during films."
  • "I had a teacher in junior high who knew that I was particularly shy. She would never challenge me and ask me to answer publicly, but instead took me aside and said, 'I can tell by your facial expressions that you are participating silently and that you know the answers.'"
  • In eleventh grade I was struggling with composition. A new English teacher took the time to point out that there were some good things in my writing. It motivated me to work harder on my themes, and before the year was out I received my first 'A minus' on a composition. I still have that composition.
  • "In sixth grade, I had trouble understanding science terms worded other than as glossary meanings. A teacher told me I could still know the answers if explained to me the way I understood them. She took time to give an oral science test. It boosted my confidence, and I was able to do written tests from thereafter."

These positive memories were filled with feelings of respect for the individuality of each student, and with the belief that students are valuable members of the school community and have much to offer.

The negative memories

Now, let's turn to the negative memories and reflect upon what they teach us.

  • "It was grade eleven. Math was hard for me. I don't remember this lady's name, but she had a way of making me feel like a second class citizen because I didn't understand things the first time. I think it wasn't specific words, but the subtle things in her tone of voice and body language that indicated how frustrated she was with my slowness."
  • "I was told by a grade school teacher that my answer was stupid."
  • "My algebra teacher accused me of asking questions to disrupt the class, when in truth I was seeking understanding."
  • "In the tenth grade, my geometry teacher asked if I was dumb because I didn't understand some point he was making."
  • "In elementary school, I asked a question and the teacher said, 'Weren't you listening? I just answered that!' I rarely asked questions after that."

Teacher impact and self-esteem

In examining these memories, in interviewing students, in having opportunities to meet thousands of teachers through my workshops, and in reviewing research findings, I arrived at a number of conclusions that are detailed in my book The Self-Esteem Teacher , some of which can be summarized in the following points:

  1. Teachers have a very significant, lifelong impact on all of their students.
  2. This impact involves not only the teaching of particular academic skills, but as importantly, the fostering of student self-esteem. Reinforcing self-esteem in the classroom is associated with increased motivation and learning.
  3. The use of strategies to foster self-esteem can go hand-in-glove with teaching academic skills, and needs not require additional time from teachers. If anything, a focus on self-esteem can create a more exciting, satisfying teaching environment.
  4. Self-esteem strategies do not require financial costs or a budget, but rather the sensitivity, respect, and caring of teachers.
  5. As the memories of teachers suggest, self-esteem strategies involve helping students feel they belong and are welcome in the school setting, providing them with responsibilities through which they perceive themselves as contributing and making a difference (e.g., tutoring younger children, helping to take care of school plants), offering them opportunities to make choices and decisions and solve problems, and communicating encouragement and positive feedback. While these kinds of positive interventions are important for all students, they are particularly relevant for students who find learning problematic.
  6. Many of the teachers' negative memories captured situations in which they felt that teachers demeaned, belittled, or accused them of being disruptive as they struggled to understand what was being taught. Children with learning difficulties are especially vulnerable to this kink of treatment and unfortunately, even today, continue to hear accusations that they are lazy and unmotivated or that they should pay closer attention so that they wouldn't have to ask so many questions. Teachers must constantly communicate to students that mistakes are part of the learning process and that no student should ever feel embarrassed to ask questions if they do not understand something.

To minimize student fear of making mistakes and feeling humiliated, I advocate that during the first or second day of the new school year teachers ask students, "who feels they will probably made a mistake in class this year or not understand something the first time?" and before anyone can respond, teachers raise their own hands. Teachers can then ask the class why they thought this question about mistakes was posed and use student replies as a launching pad to discuss how fears of not knowing something and making mistakes interfere with offering opinions and answers, and learning. To acknowledge openly the fear of failure renders it less powerful and less destructive.

A concluding remark

Teachers should never minimize the role they play in influencing students' lives. Hopefully, that role will be positive, possessing the qualities of a "charismatic adult" who not only touches students' minds but also their spirits -- the way they see and feel about themselves for the rest of their lives. Such influence is truly a rare privilege that should be prized and nurtured.

About the author

Dr. Robert Brooks is a clinical psychologist who has worked with special needs children and their families for over 25 years. A renowned speaker, he is on the faculty at Harvard Medical School and was formerly director of the department of psychology at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. He is also the author of The Self-Esteem Teacher

Their World 1993 - National Center for Learning Disabilities