A teachers helps a student with school work

How Studying Psychology Trained Me to Be a Teacher

During my 10-year career crisis, I got a rather mismatched resume that went well alongside my rather mismatched education. In the end, I wound up with a bachelor’s in creative writing, half of one in psychology, a third of a master’s in counseling, and a minor in interdisciplinary studies (the irony of which has only recently made itself clear).

After a series of misguided “careers” and mishaps, I returned to what I loved most (writing), while simultaneously fulfilling a dream I’d been fostering for a long time on the side. For three reasons: One, because while I love writing, the pay isn’t as glamorous as you might imagine; two, obviously, since my counseling and psych degrees are factorial, I didn’t follow through on those -- which meant when I thought “Hey, I want to try teaching next,” I also didn’t want to add another $30,000 in useless student loans; and because three, I thought, “Hey, I want to try teaching next!”

Here’s how my psychology courses helped me to become a better teacher.

Intro to Career Counseling

Talk about not being glamorous. And talk about being glad I didn’t add another $30,000 in loans to do it full-time. My 5-year-old self was quite taken with reading books aloud to groups, and all my teachers got to do that. You also got to write on the chalkboard, have all the smoothest sheets of paper, and decide where everyone sat. Not to mention being the boss of everyone (in the classroom, at least).

Now, I spent six years tutoring college students to improve their writing. That’s nothing like being an impromptu first grade teacher, or trying to force seventh graders to do their in-class science assignment. Tutoring college students - even the ones who are there because their professors made them come - is mostly like trying to have a conversation with the person next to you on an airplane who’s just trying to take a nap. Substitute teaching is like trying to herd cats on the moon.

Developmental Psychology

But I had some tricks up my sleeve. I had a three-hour crash course from the company who supplies my district’s substitutes, which consisted of two hours and 45 minutes of paperwork, 15 minutes of how to work the self-scheduling website, and roughly one sentence about how to handle problematic children. I had a bag of lollipops, a book of games, and a sneaking suspicion that I was wildly unprepared. And I had one half of a psychology degree, which was the only one of those tricks that turned out to be helpful.

If you’re going to train dogs, you have to understand the stages of puppy development so you know the appropriate age for moving from potty training to vocal commands. If you’re going to teach children, you have to understand what’s going on in their brains so you can not only teach at an appropriate age level, but teach in a way that is applicable to every child in the class - not just the ones who remember everything you’ve said, but the ones who need to touch things or write them down. Even the ones that aren’t totally sure what class they’re in at that particular moment.

Developmental psychology starts with all the horrible things that can happen to a fetus, right up to how to stop losing your memory in late adulthood. Knowing where in their little lives these kids were helped me relate to them, even the ones I didn’t particularly like, and to understand why some of them were such little jerks (mostly just blame the parents on that one) (parents, that was a joke).


Just because you know one child, or have a child of the age you’re working with, doesn’t mean you know every child. And schools are large populations. When you have to memorize the statistics and diagnostic descriptions of every mental disease and personality disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (a very large, very comprehensive book), you realize that there are people with serious problems all around you. Not that every class has a schizophrenic child, but the chances are pretty high that almost every class has a kid with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

You learn how to recognize the child sitting quietly because she’s well-behaved, and the one sitting quietly because she’s depressed because no one wants to be her friend. Just because I’m usually only there for one day doesn’t mean I can’t make a little bit of a difference, and help a child with ADD stay on task, or compliment the girl with depression on how hard she worked. When any of them start causing problems, it’s easy to send them to the principal’s office and let the teacher deal with it later - which usually means detention, in-school suspension, or whatever else it is they’re handing out these days. But it’s more effective, rewarding, and endearing to the kids if you pull them aside and ask them what they think about the way they’re acting and talk about alternative ways to behave.

And I am proud to say, I have yet to send a child to the principal - although I did call the principal to an entire class. I am not exaggerating when I say that high schoolers are zoo animals.

Counseling Process and Skills

First and foremost, you learn relaxation and anxiety reduction techniques to teach your clients. They worked great for me, too. Second, counseling teaches you how to talk to people - whether those people are your best friends or a bunch of fourth graders under your command, who get in trouble for being too loud in the hallway because they were laughing at you for swinging open a door directly into a small child walking by. But despite the other teacher’s dire threat to tell Mr. So-and-so how horrible they were being, I took responsibility, and they loved me for it. Because I treated them like equals - just like you’re supposed to do with patients. You don’t belittle, demean, scream at, or presume yourself to be better than them. You’re there to help them, not ruin their day.

It also teaches you how to ask questions (from “How badly do you need to go to the bathroom?” to “Can you tell me what really happened here?”) rather than communicating only in statements (“You don’t need to go to the bathroom that badly” or “Tell me the truth, you little jerk!”), pick out liars, and find a different approach when the one you’re using is going badly.

My first few weeks, I walked in and told them what I didn’t want them to do. Bad move, coach. When I switched to having no expectations or telling them what they could do, I got a much better reaction. I wasn’t planting ideas of misbehavior in their head, or telling them exactly how to push my buttons. Thank you, reverse psychology.

Behavioral Psychology

Perhaps most importantly, I knew Thorndike and Pavlov’s research like the back of my hand.  Operant conditioning, my friends. Rewarding good behavior, rather than punishing bad behavior, is much more effective in the long run. I have kids who get excited when they see me waiting in the classroom. They even tell me which substitutes they hate having, what they don’t like about their teachers, and have learned I can relate to them because I’m still young enough to remember being in seventh grade. My good, quiet kids get snuck a lollipop. The ones that finish their work can do anything they want - within school rules and as long as it doesn’t disturb the ones that are still working.

Group Therapy

Maybe teachers learn all that stuff I brought with me from psychology. I don’t know; I’m not a teacher, and I didn’t take any education classes. In fact, I didn’t learn a single thing about teaching in all my time studying psychology. But I didn’t just “learn about psychology.” I took broad lessons from small points, and then applied them to life when the opportunity arose.

The point of a job or getting educated, well, it is to  do a specific set of tasks, make money, and hope for a promotion. But there’s always something to be learned. A biologist doesn’t disregard the periodic table because he learned it in chemistry. He’s one step ahead when he does...whatever it is biologists do with natural elements. You can learn so much about something completely inapplicable. You just have to let yourself be taught.

Last Updated: October 18, 2015