This week we had a staff meeting where we told not to say “Hey, guys!” to the kids because it was exclusive. And asked to watch out for lining girls and boys up in alternate order or doing a contra dance with boys on one side and girls on the other. The idea is not to accent gender, especially in deference to those not sure to which side of the line they belong.
A colleague went to a training in which he was told never to make sarcastic comments to kids. Another was given a little script about precisely how to praise kids and told never to modulate her voice or show passion. For years now, many teachers have had to begin class clearly stating the learning objectives to the kids and could be fired if they chose a different way to start. What’s going on here?
To react generously to the trend, I would say that a partial truth is being mistaken for a universal truth reduced to a formula to get uniform results. It’s true that we should be aware of gender issues and not mindlessly always separate classes into boys and girls (something, incidentally, that every age of kid does expertly on their own. Ask them to sit in a circle and watch what happens). It’s true that sarcasm as a primary mode of talking to kids is not the best choice. It’s true that telling someone “how did you arrive at the answer? Your thinking was clear and it worked” is a more helpful inquiry than exclaiming “you’re so smart!!!” And it’s true that sometimes teachers are not always clear on the main goals of their lesson and kids are not always clear about why they’re there and it’s helpful to make that explicit.
But all of the above have their limits and can reduce the educational adventure to dull, scripted, artificial and ultimate ineffective strategies. Sitting kids in boy/girl circles breaks up patterns and balances energy in important ways. Sincere sarcasm in a moment when something deserves it is better than a robotic script. “That’s brilliant!” spoken in genuine awe will make a child break out into an ear-to-ear grin knowing he or she was seen and appreciated. (And yes, better than “You’re brilliant!” by focusing on a particular action. But how many of us would refuse an occasional “You’re brilliant!” from our boss, our colleagues, our students, our spouses? Is is really damaging to our personal growth?). And the whole nightmare of naming the outcomes at the beginning is not only a blatant fiction (no one can predict what children actually come away from in a lesson), but shuts down the many ways to create an enticing beginning to a lesson. Those who know my work can testify to the engagement and magic that happens when a teacher begins teaching a class in silence, the students have no idea where it’s leading and 20 minutes later, they’ve created something of great power and beauty.
That’s my polite analysis. What I really want to say is: People, people, people! Have we gone mad?! Has the great adventure of investigating together how the world works been reduced to mindless formulas made by administrators and educational theorists who rarely spend time sitting on the floor with children? Considering our language and our tone and what we say to kids and how we say it and why we say it is a fine reflective exercise, but it cannot end with the narrow one-way rule about what’s best. What’s best is to be real, to teach from the center of our character, to share our amazement and confusion with kids and not try to micromagage our every interaction according to someone else’s script. We teach who we are so that children can learn to be who they are. And yes, who some teachers are is less than we—and the children— would want them to be, but handing them the proper words will accomplish exactly nothing.
A colleague who has one of the most consistent loving relationships with kids of almost any teacher I know and makes herself memorable to them in the way that every class is stamped with the full force of her character once had to teach a class with laryngitis. She was well versed in teaching silently, but used the board for a few necessary directions. At one point, she wrote with the class watching breathlessly to see what the message was, “Mary, if you do that one more time, I’m going to kill you!!” Instead of the child getting her lawyer or reporting the teacher to the school board, she smiled and nodded her head and stopped her annoying behavior. Because their relationship was real, the child knew both the humor and seriousness behind the message.
People, just keep it real. You can say anything you want any way you want to kids as long as love is behind every word you speak. The kids are experts at sniffing out the real from the fake, the authentic from the scripted and not only will you lose them, but you’ll give them a horrible model of what teaching is, what relationship is, what “real” is. All the time wasted in teacher training about the latest educational discovery about good teaching from people far away working in windowless places with bad coffee should be spent on the very real questions that have no standard answers: How can I love the children more? How can I love each child? How can I teach with a hundred strategies needed for any given occasion?
And above all, how can I keep it real?