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Catharine Hannay, MA

Catharine Hannay, MA

Catharine Hannay is the founder of MindfulTeachers.org and the author of Being You: A Girl’s Guide to Mindfulness, a workbook for teen girls on mindfulness, compassion, and self-acceptance.

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3 Ways to Make Sure You’re in the Appropriate Teaching Role

Dr. Sam Himelstein recently described ‘4 Different Approaches to Leading Groups of Youth’: 

Presenter: includes lecturing and direct instruction

Facilitator: includes guiding discussions and eliciting contributions from the group

Supporter: includes empathizing with and encouraging students 

Confronter: includes intervening to stop disruptive or dangerous behavior.

We each tend to have a preferred role, and it’s important to be aware of this and make sure we’re choosing our approach based on what’s best for the youth. For example, I feel most comfortable as a Facilitator and Supporter, but I switch to Presenter or Confronter whenever those roles are more appropriate. 

Here are a few tips for making sure you’re using the right balance of roles to suit your context and the youth in your care. 

  1. First of all, choose the role that best suits the class.

I’ll never forget the day one of my French professors announced, “I can tell this class isn’t going well, so I’ve decided to film myself lecturing so I can see what I’m doing wrong.”

He could have saved himself a lot of trouble by asking us. We all knew what he was doing wrong. He shouldn’t have been lecturing at all; it was a seminar with only ten students. Rather than focusing on his skills as a Presenter, he should have been spending most of his time in a Facilitator role, leading class discussions and helping us express ourselves in a foreign language. 

To be fair, he was a young professor just starting out. And I certainly made my own share of mistakes in my first couple of years as an English instructor. In one course, nearly all the student evaluations had some variation on “She’s very kind, but we don’t always know when we made a mistake.” I was trying so hard to be a Supporter that I vastly overestimated how upset my students would be in response to a simple correction.

Of course there are many circumstances when it makes sense to lecture. And it’s essential to be a Supporter in times of grief, crisis, or natural disaster. The point isn’t that one role is better than another but to use discernment in choosing the appropriate role at the appropriate time, and in not going so far into a particular role that it no longer benefits the students. 

  1. When in the Confronter role, don’t use excessive force

In observing other teachers over the years, the Confronter role is the one I’ve seen misused most often.  The point of the Confronter role isn’t to be confrontational but to take a firm stand when there’s a limit that needs to be set. If handled skillfully, this can be done in a way that deescalates the tension rather than increasing it.

In his book Not Light but Fire, Matthew Kay shows the different ways a teacher could respond to an interruption during a class discussion.

Scenario 1: 

Mike (interrupting Joe, a classmate): Yo! The same thing happened to me yesterday, when…

Mr. Kay (frustrated): One voice [at a time]! You’ve got to stop interrupting!

Mike (equally frustrated, whispering to a classmate): Told you Mr. Kay doesn’t like me.

Scenario 2: 

Mike (interrupting Joe, a classmate): Yo! The same thing happened to me yesterday, when…

Mr. Kay (smiling, holding up a placating hand): Patience, man! Listen to Joe—he’s making a good point! Tell your story in a bit.

Mike: Oh, my bad, Joe.

(Not Light but Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom, p. 19)

In the first scenario, Mr. Kay is too harsh with a student who’s enthusiastic rather than deliberately disruptive. And the class is even more distracted from what Joe was saying before he was interrupted. 

In the second scenario, both Mike and Joe are respected, and each understands that he’ll be listened to when it’s his turn to speak. This is a perfect example of being a compassionate Confronter, because the teacher is intentionally setting a boundary, not reacting out of his own feelings of anger or discomfort. 

There’s another good example in True Notebooks, about Mark Salzman’s experiences as a writing teacher in a youth detention facility. One day, many of the boys wrote essays that picked on and insulted one of their classmates. Mr. Salzman told them how upset he was about this, then took a little time to cool off. At the beginning of the next session, he announced:

From now on, there won’t be any writing about someone else in the class. I expect better from you than that, and I know you won’t let me down again. (p. 237)

As in the previous example, the teacher set a clear boundary, but did so in a way that a) didn’t escalate the situation, and b) allowed everyone to preserve their dignity.

  1. Think about the reason behind undesirable behavior.

There are a variety of reasons why kids might behave in a way that’s disruptive or disrespectful when that really isn’t their intent. The most common reasons I’ve seen are trauma or miscommunication.

An Example of How Trauma Can Impact Coursework

Sharon Draper was asking a student from an inner city neighborhood why he didn’t do his homework. He was hesitant to reply, but eventually explained that it was because he’d spent the night in the bathtub.

 ‘Why would you need to take a bath all night?’ I asked.

‘I wasn’t taking a bath,’ he said, looking at me as if I were stupid. ‘I was hiding. Mama said that when the shooting gets really bad, the safest place to hide is in the bathtub. She made me stay there all night.’

(Not Quite Burned Out but Crispy Around the Edges, p. 59)

That’s clearly not a ‘the dog ate my homework’ type of excuse. Ms. Draper didn’t let him off the hook entirely, which wouldn’t have benefited him in the long run, but she did give him extra time to complete his assignment. 

An Example of Misunderstanding

During Black History Month a few years ago, I was shocked when one of my students said it was all right to call black people the N-word. I immediately went into Confronter mode and set a clear boundary:

“No, you must not say that word. Ever.” 

She was an English language learner from an Asian country without the same racial history as the U.S. When I asked her why she’d thought it was OK to use the N-word, she said it was because she heard it all the time in popular rap and hip-hop songs. 

She’d been speaking from ignorance and confusion, not because she was trying to be provocative or offensive.

(For more about working with immigrants and international students, see Add a Culturally-Aware Lens to Your Trauma-Informed Toolkit and 3 Essential Tips for Working with Limited English Proficiency Youth.)

A Combination of Communication Issues and Trauma

In a post on Working with Youth with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD) and Trauma, Jordan Smelley explains that many youth with IDD have trouble communicating verbally. When they’re ‘acting out,’ they may actually be trying to communicate through their behavior.

He gives the example of an 8-year-old autistic girl who disrupted the other campers by pushing the buttons on the DVD player while they were watching a movie. 

Cindy’s grandmother explained that the only way she knows how to express that she’s not feeling emotionally safe (because of past trauma) is by taking control of something in her physical environment (which in this case happened to be the DVD player). […] She felt a loss of control and her behavior was the only way she knew how to communicate that she felt emotionally unsafe. This is why relying on verbal communication with youth diagnosed with IDD can be risky and that we as youth providers should interpret behaviors (especially disruptive behaviors) through a trauma-informed lens.

Conclusion

Of course, these are just a few of the many possible situations that can arise when teaching or leading groups of youth. Depending on the nature of your work, you may spend a lot more time in Presenter, Facilitator, Supporter, or Confronter mode, or you might shift among them several times in a single session. I hope these examples help you think about the balance of roles that’s most appropriate for your situation and most beneficial to the youth in your care. 

Your Turn 

Which of the roles is most challenging for you? Which role do you use most often in your work? Have you ever observed someone using one of these roles at an inappropriate time or in an inappropriate way (or have you done this yourself)? Post a comment and share your tips, questions, or experiences.

If you found this information useful, you may also be interested in the following posts:

You might also benefit from Heart Spring, an online community for helping professionals to continually evolve self-care and resilience practices, learn skills to bring to those they work with, and connect to a larger helping communit

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