Being a problem

09.30.14 | Learning on the EDge | 0 Comments


“I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

—   Haim Ginott, Teacher and Child (Macmillan, 1972), p. 15

I had expected to write this EdNote about Haim Ginott’s conception of who has the power in schools to set what he calls “the weather” in classrooms and schools. But, as I read Greg Patterson’s interview with four African-American educators in the October issue of Kappan, one phrase pulled me up short: How does it feel to be a problem?

The comment came from Richard J. Reddick, assistant professor of education at the University of Texas at Austin, who was quoting W.E.B. DuBois from The Souls of Black Folks (1903).

If the teacher controlling the weather confronts a child in whom a storm is brewing, who can calm the waters?
I kept returning to those two powerful ideas. On the one hand, Ginott presents a young educator confronting the “frightening conclusion” that he can shape a child’s day and, thus, his life. On the other, DuBois poses a more troubling question of how a child must feel when days and weeks and years have drilled into him that everyone thinks he’s a mistake.

If the teacher controlling the weather confronts a child in whom a storm is brewing, who can calm the waters?

Quelling the storm

DuBois’ question, so powerful yet so personal, challenges educators to put themselves into the mindset of a child, especially a black male child who is perceived at almost every step to be a threatening troublemaker. DuBois goes on to describe the “double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” To rephrase his question: How does it feel to be a black boy in America and know that almost everyone you encounter is prone to react in a negative way because they are scared you will hurt them?

We’ve seen that play out in Trayvon Martin’s murder and more recently in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. We see it in smaller ways every day in American schools. Although those in-school reactions may not result in violence, they play a part in laying the groundwork for confrontations between black boys and individuals in authority. Schools impose strict disciplinary policies with the expectation that children will misbehave, and children rise to that expectation.

Ginott was clearly not responding directly to Dubois’ question. But, in the early pages of Teacher and Child, Ginott poses the question of where teachers start to improve life in the classroom. “By examining how we respond to children. How a teacher communicates is of decisive importance. . . . Teachers who want to improve relations with children need to unlearn their habitual language of rejection and acquire a new language of acceptance. To reach a child’s mind, a teacher must capture his heart. Only if a child feels right can he think right” (p. 81).

Ginott’s message to educators might have been that, in the power relationship that is school, adults have all the power. As he says, they control the weather. They’re the ones who can change the relationship through their interactions with students. Children are too young, too immature to control their own destinies. Expecting them to take charge of their emotions is just folly, especially if they’re coming to school from chaotic households and communities where self-control is not a high priority.

Teachers are authoritative, powerful individuals who command the attention of roughly 30 children during any given hour. Across the course of a day, a middle school or high school teacher could easily influence upwards of 150 children a day. Day after day. Week after week. Has anyone calculated the number of small interactions that a teacher might have with a single child during one day and then multiplied that across a typical 180-day school year? Ginott posits that each teacher has over a thousand interpersonal exchanges with students every day (p. 270). How many such teacher interactions would a student have during 13 years of schooling?

If we believe that schools are shaping students for their eventual full-fledged roles as American citizens, then school discipline policies and classroom management practices should be about far more than shushing kids and keeping them in straight lines as they walk through the halls. We must reach deep, putting ourselves in the mindset of each child, factoring in how every interaction shapes him or her into an adult — and developing the policies and practices that support those beliefs.

We can treat children in school like criminals, or we can nurture them into being the adults we want to share our world with. If you want value-added in education, that’s where I’d start.


About Joan Richardson

JOAN RICHARDSON is editor-in-chief of Phi Delta Kappan magazine.

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