Unconditional Teaching

a living manifesto for healthier relationships in education

Radical Acceptance and expectations in teaching

Jessica Koch | 17 Dec 2019 |

In this piece, I elaborate on how the concepts of Radical Acceptance, the “trust-default”, and the distinction between personal and professional expectations helped me to improve and feel better about my teaching and get a better understanding for what I think unconditionality in teaching should entail.

I used to be bothered by students not doing what I asked them to do. Whether it was homework, reading the set texts of the week, talking to me in class – I would always be frustrated, grumpy, and disappointed whenever I felt that there was a lack of cooperation or dedication in class; not because I am a fundamentally grumpy person or because I am easily disappointed but because I believed that, if I took my job seriously, I had to partake in a discourse of frustration with students’ inability to follow their teachers’ instructions.

I used to be bothered by students not doing what I asked them to do.

But the longer I worked as a lecturer, the better I understood that my mimicry of teacher discontent over students’ shortcomings didn’t change anything: homework wasn’t done more frequently or regularly, reading in preparation for sessions still didn’t happen as often as I wanted, participation levels didn’t rise. Worse even: I realized that my attitude made me a part of or at least complicit with a way of thinking and acting that makes everyone involved – students and teachers alike – much more miserable. I felt terrible after each session and if I was honest with myself, so did probably my students. Did I do something wrong? Was I not strict enough? Did they not respect me as their teacher, as a figure of authority?

We, i.e. people in teaching professions, often speak under the premise that we know that the teacher-student relationship is exactly that: a relationship. However, we often miss the aim of acting on that knowledge. In the specific context of my own classroom this meant that my reaction of anger and disappointment to the perceived shortcomings of my students automatically had a negative impact on them that certainly did not increase the likelihood of academic success. Rather, my frustration-fuelled reactions would trigger shame, hurt, and anger in my students that could be directed at me but would most likely be directed at themselves.

The point was not that I was being too lenient still or that I wasn’t strict enough. This was also not a question of respect or acknowledgement of authority that my students may or may not have been showing. Rather, I realized, the very premise I had accepted for teaching in general was the issue.

I have since this moment of realisation worked towards a different approach to teaching and have found three cornerstones for my own teaching endeavours that work for me:

1.) Radical Acceptance

2.) The “trust-default”

3.) The distinction between personal and professional expectations

Radical Acceptance

The concept of Radical Acceptance originates in psychotherapy: I first came across it in conversation with my therapist who helped me in figuring out how to beat the vicious cycle that is depression. I soon understood that Radical Acceptance could not only help me get better mentally and emotionally in general, but that it could also have an impact on my approach to teaching and help me become a better lecturer and supervisor.

Radical Acceptance, in its broadest sense, means to acknowledge and accept circumstances and facts that we cannot change or control. Instead of refusing to accept the circumstances under which we are operating – the metaphorical cards we have been dealt –, Radical Acceptance allows us to accept our hand and play the game of life as best we can. It means to realize that there is a difference between pain and suffering: While certain situations and circumstances are bound to produce pain that we will inevitably have to bear, the suffering that grows out of the refusal to accept this pain as part of life and human experience can be prevented – we may not be able to prevent us from feeling pain, but we often can avoid suffering. 1

Suffering is optional, pain is not. – Karyn Hall

Karyn Hall eloquently sums up the purpose of Radical Acceptance in therapeutic endeavours: “Radical Acceptance is about accepting life on life’s terms and not resisting what you cannot or choose not to change. Radical Acceptance is about saying Yes to life, just as it is”. 2 For my own teaching this means that I radically accept what I cannot change in my students’ interactions with me in- and outside of the classroom: I accept that students will be late to class sometimes. I accept that students won’t always read the assigned texts. I accept that students sometimes do not contribute to class discussions. I accept that students sometimes ditch my classes in favor of doing something else entirely.

I will still often feel the ‘pain’ of my class being interrupted by a late-comer, or the fact that I have to throw my plans for a session out the window because nobody in class read the set texts. However, by accepting that these things simply are the way they are now, I am no longer brooding over these circumstances for days on end – I am no longer suffering under frustration that I made myself.

This also has two additional effects:

On the one hand, it frees up energy for problem-solving that I would usually have spent on being outraged, frustrated, or disappointed. Instead of being angry at my students for not reading the homework texts, I can instead use the energy to a.) ask them, without being judgemental or pushy, what kept them from reading the text and work on solutions for these issues, and b.) be quick in reorganizing my teaching material and ideas for the session to still turn it into a successful experience for myself and my students.

On the other hand, it also allows me to be kinder to myself as well: If I can radically accept that, sometimes, my students will be late, then I can radically accept that I will be late sometimes as well. As someone who is often under threat of being overwhelmed by her own expectations of perfectionism, just acknowledging that sometimes life doesn’t allow for things to work out for others and that that is okay, allows me to accept this truth for myself as well. It keeps me from beating myself up over my own shortcomings: being too late to class or not being as prepared as I would like then is no longer an experience that leaves me thinking that I am a terrible, irresonsible teacher who should never have been allowed to stand in front of students in the first place. Instead, it merely makes an appearance as a nuisance that quickly makes room for a more solution-oriented mindset. Instead of dwelling on the past, Radical Acceptance in teaching helps me to focus on the present and the imminent future in my classroom.

The “trust-default”

I trust that my students want to learn and grow. I also trust that if I manage to choose meaningful reading and writing tasks in my seminars, i.e. such tasks that provide a broad array of avenues for growth for a student group of heterogeneous backgrounds and proficiency levels, that my students will be motivated and see benefit in completing these tasks.

More importantly, however, I trust that my students don’t reject my teaching, the material, or the tasks out of malevolence, laziness, or willful ignorance. I simply reject the idea that human beings – particularly young people – always strive to avoid work and are essentially, at their very core, disinterested in expanding their horizons and skillsets. Rather, I trust in my students’ ability to discover for themselves when and in which contexts certain tasks are important to them, their learning experience, and their personal and academic growth. I invite them to let me know, for instance, whether a task meaningfully prepares them for a certain class goal they have set for themselves or in accordance with the whole class. This requires a certain flexibility in my teaching that I am gladly practicing for both my own and my students’ benefit.

The distinction between personal and professional expectations

The Oxford English Dictionary has several definitions of the word “expectation”. On the one hand and most generally, it is considered to be a “preconceived idea or opinion based on what a person has hoped for or imagined regarding a future event, situation or encounter”. On the other hand, it may also refer to “the act or fact of expecting something as rightfully due, appropriate, or as fulfilling an obligation”. I find these two definitions to be helpful when thinking about my own approach to managing my expectations regarding my students.

The first definition the OED provides has to do with me as a private person, whereas the second definition has something to do with me as a professional teacher and academic.

I strictly distinguish between the two.

The former – my personal expectations (or, rather, hope) – is shaped by my connection to my students as fellow human beings that I respect and care about: I expect that my students will be able to learn how to make responsible decisions for themselves that will keep them healthy, happy, and in love with life. I am aware that that may include not working for uni, not coming to my classes, or making career decisions I would not recommend.

The latter – my professional expectations – are shaped by the system in which I am operating: In the role of the teacher, I expect my students to do their homework, read in preparation and be present in class, etc. If that is not the case, however, I don’t need to be disappointed because I know that my students do not reject my input out of spite (see the “trust-default”).

My job as a teacher is not to be disappointed because my expectations weren’t met. On the contrary: I do believe that my job is to be as supportive as I possibly can to help my students achieve their personal and professional goals – no matter whether they align with my own expectations.

I am fully aware that other lecturers and teachers think differently when it comes to what to expect from students. However, I would like to encourage students to evaluate other people’s expectations (be they expectations of teachers, lecturers, parents, friends) on a case-by-case basis: Students can decide each and every time whether they want to take on these expectations as their own or to reject them if they feel like they don’t fit their current situation, experience, and context. Rejecting others’ expectations can be hard but I believe that students – and by extension all of us – are allowed to reject them with confidence and pride.

We may not always know in advance what is good for us but it is our right to find that out ourselves, at our own pace, in our own time. Our lives are our own and no one else’s.


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