By Deborah Bieler

Author of The Power of Teacher Talk: Promoting Equity and Retention Through Student Interactions

Deborah Bieler is a professor in the English education program at the University of Delaware. She is a former high school English teacher, student teaching mentor, and writing center director whose scholarship, teaching, and activism focus on the preparation and retention of equity-oriented secondary English teachers. Her work has appeared in journals such as English Education, English Journal, Teachers College Record, Teacher Education Quarterly, and The New Educator. She has received the National Council of Teachers of English Promising Researcher Award, the University of Delaware Trabant Award for Women’s Equity, and the Conference on English Education Research Initiative Award.


The image of students – and teachers – falling through the cracks still haunts me. It was the central image that emerged when a group of new, equity-oriented teachers met in my living room on Saturday mornings during their first few years of teaching. During those years, our primary inquiry became “How do I stop a child from falling when I’m falling faster?” We didn’t need to state the obvious—that the terrifying sensation of falling, the kind that jolts you awake and leaves you gasping for breath after a nightmare, only happens when the supports you planned on are broken or too weak, or you’ve lost your balance, or you’ve stumbled over an obstacle. We knew that falling—whether actual or metaphorical—can cause great harm and that we wanted to prevent as much of that harm as possible.

It’s critical for us as teachers to understand that the same weak supports, balance-upsetting realities, and obstacles that can cause us to fall can cause students to fall as well: Student retention and teacher retention are deeply intertwined. Most often, these factors are relics of pushout culture, in which negative (Fine, 1991) and criminalizing (Morris, 2016) environments, practices, and policies push people out of school. Markers of pushout culture include harsh disciplinary practices, an emphasis on testing, high stress, and feelings of powerlessness. BIPOC students and teachers, particularly those teaching and learning in under-funded schools, disproportionately experience pushout culture.

One of the most powerful findings my research has revealed is that interactions between teachers and students both reflect and shape their positioning toward retention—or, our current commitment to remaining a teacher or student. In other words, in any given interaction between a teacher and a student, not only we can discern how much both people, at that moment, are leaning toward remaining a teacher or student but we also can see how that interaction is playing a part in shaping their future retention decisions. In this way, every teacher/student interaction has the potential to contribute toward pushout.

But teacher/student interactions also have the potential to pull teachers and students in—to contribute to pull-in culture, in which a positive, supportive culture pulls teachers and students in to school. A school’s pull-in culture is evident when teachers and students clearly want to be there: they take a sense of ownership and pride in their school; they see everyday life at school as pivotal for them to achieve their personal goals; they have a voice in the decisions that affect them; and they feel seen, known, and valued.

Teachers’ interactions with their students create a microculture – a small space within a larger school setting in which language and disposition patterns become established over time—and these microcultures take on pushout or pull-in characteristics. Every teacher and student participates in a wide variety of microcultures over the course of the school day, and their overall positioning toward retention at any given moment reflects the sum of their microculture experiences.

Most of the interactions that teachers have with students are spontaneous and improvised—they are not part of our carefully prepared lesson plans. Ironically, since teacher preparation and professional development programs focus their attention primarily on the complexities of subject matter and instructional design, most teachers never receive any formal instruction about how to talk to and with our students. These interactions are also fast-paced, at the astounding rate of five interactions a minute, or one interaction every twelve seconds. But in spite of their fast pace, they are likely to be highly consequential—both for student learning and for retention.

While we as teachers are likely to be aware of the effects of our interactions on students, to recognize that what we say to students, and how we say it, can shape students’ connection to school, we are less likely to realize that these interactions are also constantly shaping our own connection to school. Given that teacher shortages had already reached concerning levels by 2019 (García & Weiss, 2019), and it is not yet clear to what extent the pandemic has affected either teacher or student retention, a renewed focus on teachers’ interactions with students is vital for creating as many pull-in microcultures as possible.

Whether teaching in person and/or online, teachers can commit to creating a pull-in culture in our classrooms—and therefore “pull in” both our students and themselves—by intentionally talking with our students in humane ways that demonstrate radical compassion. When teachers intentionally create pull-in culture by demonstrating radical compassion, we engage not only in self-care practices but also in antiracist teaching practices.

Radical compassion that goes far beyond everyday politeness and occur during tense moments that would test most teachers’ compassion. As practices, like yoga or prayer, it can be developed over time through intention and repetition.

The practice of radical compassion entails responding to challenging moments in the classroom in supportive ways that prioritize students’ well-being rather than in judgmental ways that emphasize discipline. For example, when a student is trying to covertly text a friend during class—whether online or in-person—a radically compassionate teacher might joke, “Painfully obvious” or “Ooh, I like those stickers on the back of your phone” rather than respond with “Give me your phone” or “Put the phone away.” The radically compassionate teacher’s move preserves both the student/teacher relationship and the student’s sense of belonging in the class, while the discipline-emphasizing approach can erode the student/teacher relationship and embarrass the student. By taking a radically compassionate approach, teachers can remain positive and supportive—and can actually be the kind of teachers we wanted to be when we entered the profession, a kind of self-actualization that contributes to our own retention as well.

During this time of unprecedented stress, teachers—whether working online and/or in-person—have once again been asked to do more with less time and resources. And yet we know that so many inequities are being exacerbated by COVID-19—from infection rates and technology access to student dropout and graduation rates. For these reasons, it is more important than ever for us to create pull-in culture through the practice of radical compassion. Doing so doesn’t require more time or resources; but it does require that we intentionally change how we interact with our students whenever we meet online and/or in person. The pandemic has caused a stripping away of the non-essentials and a focus instead on what’s most important. Here, in the nature of our talk with our students, lies a great opportunity to do just that, to make small changes that can have major impacts.

Photo credit: Dorey Nomiyama Photography.

References

García, E., & Weiss, E. (2019, October). The teacher shortage is real, large and growing, and worse than we thought. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Washington, D.C.: Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved from https://files.epi.org/pdf/163651.pdf.