Thursday, April 30, 2015

Cruel School


“No children should ever have to feel like their teachers don’t like them—even if they don’t!”     (From an interview with a hiring committee at my school.)

I love this. I was in a discussion group yesterday dreaming about a “magic wand” change each of us would like to make in the world. Mine was to re-organize all of education with one purpose only— to help children feel known, wanted, valued, important, to bless them with earned praise when they come up with an interesting idea or make a breakthrough or do something with particular finesse and the whole force of their character. What a difference that would make! A world of children growing into adults who feel that they belong, that they are needed, that they are worthy of notice from adults. How could such children habitually harm others if they themselves felt loved and appreciated?

I also love the last part of the sentence—“even if they don’t!” That gives a reality check to the fantasy of unconditional love for all, the brute truth that some chemistries don’t mix well, some qualities of kids (and adults!) we will find annoying, unpleasant or downright maddening. Yes, we can and must address those things that muddy the class flow, bother classmates, disrupt the harmony. But it’s always a good idea—though not easy— to separate behavior from people. “I don’t like what you just did” is quite different from “I don’t like you!” and teachers should mind the difference.

I just finished a remarkable book titled A House in Bali by Colin McPhee. The author was a composer who went to Bali in the 1930’s and was one of the first to transcribe and record Balinese music and make it more known in the West. In one chapter, he talks about a boy who he was helping learn to read and write and his alarm when the boy wanted to go the local school (p. 178 for those interested). He writes:

I dreaded the schools and the Indonesian teachers, with their hatred for the past and their determination to stamp out all traces of native culture. I had often looked in a doorway, drawn by the droning chant of lessons which were suddenly broken into from time to time by shrill cries of fury from the teacher. …with his switch.

Physical punishment was something new for the pupils, for at home they were rarely chastised. They grew up in freedom, seldom giving any trouble, for at the age of four a boy was already a ‘small man,’ with a fine sense of his own responsibility in herding ducks or taking the great water buffaloes to the stream each day for their bath. At home the children would mimic the teacher with that peculiar gift of the Balinese for cutting satire. They would have the family in fits of laughter as they reproduced the sharp, dry, perpetually furious voice, the quick raps of his ruler against the side of the desk, and the way he was descent like the wrath of Shiva, striking here and there and breathing hard in his excitement (with) his shameless exhibition of rage, this frantic exposure of the frantic inner self…

This scene, straight out of Dickens, is all too prevalent in schools worldwide, still today (though hopefully less than in 1938). Graced with a different narrative of child-raising at home— a combination of useful work and permission to run free and fly kites and such—the kids could see this imported Western model of schooling for the weird thing it is, wrathful teachers losing any sense of dignity and equanimity and exposing their own eroded spirit. And as for any hope that the teacher “likes” the children, well, hard to feel that with furious voice, rapping ruler or twitching switch in hand. The only lesson learned at that school is cruelty. 

My colleagues, we’re a long way from switch in hand, but still there are many verbal and gestural ways to draw blood from innocent and not-so-innocent young people. We would all do well to pause and ask ourselves, “Does each one of my students feel that I like him or her? If not, why not? “ And if you’re really brave, you can even ask them! Wouldn’t that be interesting?

1 comment:

  1. Hey Doug, this was a very timely post. I've been struggling with students in several of my classes, to get them to see me as their ally and not their adversary/enemy. I've tried many strategies to get them to understand that we are on the same team, and that I am, among other things, trying to get them to be successful in life, first and foremost by making really great music with other people, regardless of whether or not they "like" them! "A wise, old owl sat on an oak..." This was very helpful/relevant material today! Hope you are well... Hope to see you soon! Eric

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