Unconditional positive regard doesn’t stop when my students walk out the door at 2:15.
True unconditional positive regard infuses all conversations about my students, because the way I talk about my students informs my practice when I’m with them.
Recently a comment of mine on an Edutopia post sparked someone else to write a post asking whether venting about students should be banned. This in turn is generating lots of conversation, a lot of which defends teachers’ rights to free speech and holds that venting helps teachers prevent burnout. But I think “should venting be banned” is probably the wrong question.
Here are some questions I’d rather answer:
- How does my staff culture respect students whether or not they are in the room?
- Where are my teachers getting emotional support for the challenging aspects of their jobs?
- How are teachers understanding challenging student behavior? Are they left to make sense of this on their own, or are we using a trauma-informed approach, consulting and collaborating with social workers and mental health professionals, and contextualizing student behavior in our unique community?
- Are teachers comfortable going to one another for problem-solving and support? Are my teachers willing and able to be vulnerable with one another? Are they in strong enough relationship with one another to offer feedback?
- Do teachers feel ownership and influence over their classrooms? Their job as a whole? Are they blaming students and families because they feel powerless to make change?
- What example is being set by school leaders?
- Does my staff share the same values? Are we understanding one another’s positive intent, or do we question one another’s actual stance toward the students?
- Am I talking about my students in the same way I would if they were sitting in the room with me?
These are tough questions, and in a tough job, sometimes it’s easier to vent and stay stuck than doing the hard work of problem-solving. There is no silver bullet for human relationships, so we are in a constant state of trial and error and more error and iteration and questioning and trying again tomorrow. When we engage one another in true conversation about these challenges, we help move one another forward; we build resiliency.
I can and do have these types of conversations about my students with my students in the room, and with them directly. I’ve said to a student, “I feel really stuck working with you lately, and I’m wondering if you feel the same way, and what we can do about it.” I’ve said to my students, “What you just said really pushed a button for me and I want to take a minute to take care of myself before we move forward in class.” When I model vulnerability and taking ownership over my own emotions, I make it a little more okay for my students to do the same.
So, should venting be banned? Let’s ask some different questions. Let’s ask them in service of our students. Let’s ask them as if – and when – our students are in the room.