A Cautionary Tale: The Scent of a Teacher

The pool of at-risk children in America is expanding from urban, inner cities to suburban, outlying areas. What are the challenges of teaching and working with teachers in an American landscape that is filling with sporadic safety, patchy security, and erratic stability? I can tell you first hand how with stealth these actors can insinuate themselves into the spirits of some of our smartest educational workforce because for over 15 years I served as an improvement teacher/instructional coach in Metropolitan Detroit
One day as I was making my rounds of the schools, classrooms, and teachers I served, a 10th grader approached me to inquire if I were that lady from the district office who made the lessons for the teachers to prepare them for “the test”. I replied that I was. He then pointed to a classroom that he had just exited, blurted out that the teacher in there didn’t believe in herself, so she couldn’t believe in the students. They weren’t going to pass that “damn test”. Disgusted, he wandered off.  Suddenly, I felt weak, wilted. What did he mean? I was fairly acquainted with the teacher; she seemed smart and dedicated.

Coaching Observation
Steeped with concern, I entered her classroom and inquired with a smile in my voice as to how the lessons were working. She assured me that all was well and invited me to observe. Keeping a poker face and taking no notes in order to not raise her level of concern, I watched as she delivered a lesson I had designed. In time, I began to hear and see what the young student shared with me. There was a slight tentativeness in her voice and an uncertainty in her smiling face that informed, “I’m not so certain that you are capable of learning this material, and I am not so certain I am capable of teaching it so that you can.” It was subtle, almost invisible, and I’m not certain whether or not I would have recognized it had the student not shared his concern.
That day was the start an eye-opening journey of discovery: intellectual firepower, content expertise, certification, and credentials are not always enough to ensure that students master lessons that are carefully crafted. Just as a songwriter might craft a great song, it doesn’t mean he can deliver it to a paying audience. On my coaching journey, I would discover scholarly, white teachers who were uncertain of their ability to impact poor, white students who some deemed “poor, white trash”. I would coach certified, African-American teachers who were uncertain if they could elevate the skills of so many poor African-American students from so many troubled homes, and credentialed, Hispanic teachers who lacked faith in their ability to influence the future of Hispanic students. All of them lacked self-efficacy, a belief that their actions and efforts could or would make a difference.

Content Knowledge AND Efficacy Are Key!

Content Knowledge AND Efficacy Are Key!

Scent of a Teacher: The Placebo Effect
During this period, I read about single-blind studies that indicate when doctors dispense a placebo to patients, stating that taking it in the prescribed manner would make them better, some patients actually had a perceived or actual improvement in their medical condition, a phenomenon commonly known as the placebo effect.
However, some double-blind studies suggested that when doctors don’t know that they are dispensing a placebo even more patients have a perceived or actual improvement in their medical condition. Efficacy dictates that success begins with believing that success is possible.
Some sort of placebo effect was going on in the inner city schools and classrooms I was tasked with improving/supporting. Unconsciously, overwhelmed and overworked teachers were sending signals through tone of voice, facial expression, body language that perhaps their students were incapable of learning the content, and the students who needed the most support picked up on this negative energy force or  “scent” like the young male student who approached me about his teacher’s lack of faith.

A Teacher Must Believe At-Risk Students Can Succeed

As CEO of the classroom community, the teacher like a doctor builds confidence in subtle, artful ways. In order to persuade students that the content is worth learning and can be learned, the teacher must be perceived by students as more than intelligent – just like a doctor trying to convince patients they can get well. Credentials and certification help provide credence that the teacher, like the doctor, is an expert in his field; however, highly effective teachers like doctors know that there is something more – an inner confidence that beams: I own my inner assets; I’ve got this. Whatever you throw at me I can handle because I am wise, brave, and strong.
Self-efficacy inspires students to BELIEVE: To believe in and feel they can learn from the teacher.

Not Just Urban Schools Anymore

In the wake of the Sandy Hook School Tragedy, “Superstorm Sandy,” the “fiscal cliff,”  and other bubbles, I wonder about the invisible impact of perpetual disasters on American teachers’ psyche as they face a firestorm of never ending demands on their emotions, intellect, and spirits from their students. When teachers see only a sea of poverty seated before them in their classrooms on a daily basis, see students who have experienced or witnessed recurring tragedies, how long will it be before suburban teachers – like too many urban teachers – feel helpless, powerless, and subconsciously BELIEVE that they are incapable of delivering a more complex problem-solving, problem-seeking curriculum (Common Core) to an increasingly at-risk population?
As we move forward in reimagining the teaching profession in America, we must keep in mind that that the safety, security, stability of more of our children are dissolving like sugar in a cup of hot water, and with them a potential meltdown of the self-efficacy of more of our teachers.
What kind of disempowering “scent” will a wider swath of American teachers perspire daily that a wider swath of American students will pick up on?
Will we/Can we use our collective wisdom to provide teachers with the resilience to weather the mightiest societal storms?
Or will teaching be he next bubble?

Want Ad: Teachers Who BELIEVE At-Risk Children Can Succeed

Can These Teachers Be Saved? A Coach’s Journey Pt. !

When I came of age as a teacher, for women who entered the field, teaching was a first career choice. Generally, we were not single parents with children. Other than juggling the responsibilities of teaching our students, our outside the school house juggling acts included hanging out with friends or a significant other, going to the club, shopping, attending a movie or concert, traveling. Having escaped our parents’ watchful eyes and having graduated from college, we could EXHALE

New teachers who were married were on a different path: perhaps putting a spouse though medical or law school, saving money for a down payment on a home. When children came along some stayed home or took time off until they were in school. Even those who returned to teaching after a maternity leave looked forward to the scheduled time off.  In reality, many women opted for the teaching profession because the school calendar/schedule enabled us to navigate a family and to earn an income. By the time life’s BIG CHALLENGES came along, most of us had mastered teaching the content and fine tuned our classroom management strategies. 
Not the case with Amina and Carrie who entered the field as 30  something women, the primary economic heads of their households, coping with failed relationships and child(ren).

A  young high school teacher bursts into my office emotionally distraught. Recently married and with a young daughter who is not her husband’s child, she shares with me that she feels as if she is being torn between two competing forces. Her daughter is needy because for most of her young life they have been a duo. She resents having to share her mother’s attention with the husband. The new husband feels as if he should be first in his wife’s life. That’s what the Bible says.  Every night Amina is caught up in a tug of war which prevents her from proper

How Much More Can I Juggle?

How Much More Can I Juggle?


The chair of the department has requested that I work with Carrie,  a young, 1st year teacher who is experiencing classroom management difficulties. Her attendance is poor and her lesson plans when she turns them in are incomplete.

After chatting with the teacher informally on several occasions, I learn that she is in the process of divorcing her husband. Carrie is leaving an interracial marriage with two children. Her husband doesn’t want to divorce; her parents never approved of the union. Every evening is a steady stream/barrage  of phone calls, unexpected knocks at the door, meal preparation,  homework monitoring. Of course,  lesson planning and assessing papers are  an afterthought.  Each day is a struggle to get up, get the children off to school and get to work. Carrie  is emotionally and physically spent by the time she arrives in front of her classroom door to greet her students. Daily, she hides behind her desk which nonverbally communicates to students: Do not disturb.

Coaching Challenge: Can These Teachers Be Saved?

Eventually, I am called to the office by the principal who is concerned about both teachers and wants to know what I am doing about the situation. Naturally, she is worried about the school’s test scores because both teachers teach in content areas that are tested. Priestlike in my demeanor, I DO NOT divulge any information about the two teachers’ personal lives or their weaknesses as teachers. However, because they send so many students to the office and their department chair has reported to her the state of their lesson plans, she is aware. She informs me that she is considering placing both teachers on the unsatisfactory track which is the prelude to being released.

  Historically, American schools have been the least successful educating a population living in poverty, a population often parented by the chronically unemployed, or underemployed, or chemically dependent. We call such a population at-risk. We are well aware of the adversities they face daily and our moral responsibility to try to overcome them
However, some of our teachers go through periods of living on an emotional roller coaster in their personal lives too. What is our responsibility to them?     What is my responsibility to Amina and Carrie vs. my responsibility to their students? Can they be reconciled? Can these teachers be saved? Should they be? Should I recommend to the principal that they be placed on the unsatisfactory track? Once she decides on that option, all confidentiality goes out the window because the principal becomes my client. I am obligated to report to her all that I know so that she can build a case against them. As professionals, how much of a responsibility do we have to one another? As humans, how much of a stake do we have in one another? What would you do?

A Coach’s Journey

Which Path Should I Take?

Which Path Should I Take?

Educator: Is It Your Scent?

Communication requires a message, a sender, and a receiver.

Often, we communicate more through body movement, through facial expression, and/or through tone of voice than through our actual words. These communication tools can be voluntary, involuntary, positive, negative; most often we send and interpret such signals or “scents” subconsciously.

Such signals can be practiced and learned as witnessed in the 2012 Presidential Debates. Both candidates practiced and masterfully displayed communication beyond the content of their ideas and words.
Both candidates through body language, tone of voice and facial expression displayed condescension, disbelief, nervousness, tension, or frustration. “I am the President!” vs. I am Presidential.” “Sit at my elbow and listen.” “No, you don’t know what you are doing.”

Body Language: Is it your Scent?

Body Language Speaks Volumns

Teaching Challenge
An energetic, intelligent, young math teacher stands outside of his classroom door each period of the day greeting students as they enter the room. His bulletin boards, impeccable; the walls, covered with learning charts and a variety student work that entice the eye and the learning process. The desks are arranged in small groups to promote the communication, collaboration, cooperation students need to participate in the competitive and innovation-based global economy. He spends hours each week planning creative lessons to align the connection between the real world of math and the Common Core Curriculum.
However, he is unaware that his body language signals the state of mind: “I am here to help you if only you would permit me. Pleeease allow me to teach you.” The frantic cadence of his voice reinforces his nonverbal message. A small band of students pick up on his scent, that he is unsure of himself, and they decide on which days the class will cooperate. A daily power struggle ensues.

Frustrated by his lack of control and his principal’s warnings about his classroom management, the young educator changes his approach from a problem-solving/critical thinking curriculum to vocabulary puzzles, basic math reinforcement assignments, and software activities that can be assessed by a computer. These busy seatwork activities must be completed during one instructional period or face the consequences of a poor grade. These types of assignments are holdovers from the industrial economy school house that promoted obedience, silence, conformity, reward, and punishment. (
Hamstrung by the constant classroom turmoil and a peace at any price curriculum, he contemplates leaving the teaching field.

Math Lesson Didn't Go Well

Please Let Me Teach You!

Coaching Challenge

After an observation session, I honed in immediately on the situation. Unfortunately, it is a scene played out far too often in too many classrooms and schools across America and indeed the globe. Would be effective teachers sabotage themselves with poor body language and a weaker teaching voice; students smell the fear and uncertainty. The nonverbal message is a scent, an energy force that communicates to students that teachers believe in them or are afraid of them. An effective teacher’s energy radiates, “I own my inner assets; I’ve got this. Whatever you throw at me, I can handle.”

Thus, it is critical that the “scent” of a teacher demonstrates a positive, confident bearing rather than one that is unsure or easily intimidated. And their facial expression is capable of signaling approval or disapproval. Eye contact that says that I am in control –“Don’t trespass because I am wiser, braver, and stronger. “
Like a musical instrument capable of spanning a wide range of moods and emotions, theteaching voice can convey happiness, frustration, trust, belief, doubt, faith, fear, anger, or sadness. When we were children and our parents called us, we could tell by their tone how fast we should respond. We can teach students to respond to us in the same manner. Used effectively, the voice demonstrates our confidence that students’ success in possible and probable.

If you are a teacher, how has your “scent” impacted your teaching? How do you know? Have you ever stared a student down? How did it feel? Have you ever audio-taped a lesson to study your vocal quality? Have you used video equipment to study your body language?
If you are a professional who works with teachers, have you ever coached a teacher to improve his/her “scent”?
As a coach, have you examined your scent?