It’s the teacher, stupid

By Mathias Maurer, May 2013

Dear Reader,

It was incredible. Class 10. French. Svens marks hovered between a four and a five. New teacher. A few months later between a two and a three. What had happened? The pupil did not understand the sudden change and the new teacher did not know Sven other than as an interested student involved in lessons and with acceptable test results ...

In his meta-analysis Visible Learning, the New Zealand educational researcher John Hattie analysed the learning outcomes of 250 million pupils in 50,000 studies. Hattie required 15 years to work his way through this mass of numbers and the elephant gave birth to a mouse of insight: it is the teacher’s personality which decides how well pupils learn. Yet everyone who can remember their school days knows how crucially teachers can influence the whole of our lives – both positively and negatively.

The questions is, how do teachers develop their teaching personality, how do they become people whose thinking and actions the pupils like to follow yet who guide the latter to become free and independent? Where can teachers learn the qualities to see themselves as human beings engaged in development? Where can the unconditional love for the world and human beings be learnt, even if we don’t like them? And even if courses existed which taught these things, teacher training not meditation courses, it is hard to avoid the feeling that being a “beloved authority figure” (Rudolf Steiner) is something that some people are and others, despite all their effort, are not.

Rudolf Steiner cited three effective drivers of learning: fear, ambition and love. For pupils also function when they are forced to achieve, when fear and ambition dictate everything. That can be seen in the educational frontrunners Japan and Korea. This concept of achievement works only with pressure and compulsion but the mental price is a high one. That leaves the motif of love.

It is true, however, that the motif of love can only become effective if all our attitudes about what should be learnt changes. Achievement which is demanded rather than given voluntarily restricts not just the love of the pupils for the world but also of the teachers for the pupils. Because teachers are under the same pressure as their charges. In such a space, with such knowledge no free relationship can develop – neither to the world nor to oneself.

As a first step, let us release our teachers from the pressure to turn their pupils into high achievers. For even a study like Hattie’s has the sole purpose of discovering that it is indeed the personality of the teacher which makes pupils learn and get better marks. Learning processes must be liberated from any utilitarian purpose.

So what had happened with Sven? He experienced that the new teacher perceived and addressed him in his potential. The acknowledgement contained in the “loving regard” of the teacher can move mountains with pupils.

Mathias Maurer


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