Monday, February 19, 2018

The 50-Yard Line


If I’m doing my work well as a teacher, every class, every encounter with a child, every response I have to them in class, is an opportunity to deepen my purpose and improve my craft. Yesterday’s second-grade class here in New Delhi offered many such opportunities, none of which can be taught in a music education methods class. In case they’re instructive to anyone, I include a few here. But not to be copied without your own deep reflection on what you expect from the children in your class and why. So first the philosophical background that drives my daily decisions:

The old style of child-raising, be it teachers or parents, was: “These are the rules we have agreed upon as necessary to run this house/ school/ institution and you better follow them or else. We frankly don’t care how you feel about them nor do we care to know why you fell short. Just buck up or else!”

The new style is: “We understand that you must have a reason to behave as you do and you are a victim of your own ADHD or upbringing or psychological type and you’re probably doing everything you can and it’s up to us to understand you and sympathize and accept you no matter what your behavior because really, you have no choice in the matter and are acting as only you can.  We will take time from the group activity to attend to your needs and yes, it would be so nice if you could try just a little bit harder next time to not hit Shirley over the head with the mallet, but hey, we understand your anger management issues and maybe it’s our fault that we don’t have softer mallets. Perhaps we’ll suggest that Shirley wear a helmet next time. Is that okay with you?”

Should we take time to investigate why children are behaving as they are? Yes, we should. As I often tell the teachers I’m training, “behavior is the language of children,” their inarticulate way to try to articulate what they need. Our job to help them and us figure out exactly what that is. It brings a different and needed tone to the conversation beyond “just behave!”

Should we also hold the children accountable for their behavior and the effect it has on the others in the group, the activities we’re trying to master and their own learning? Yes, we should. Understanding why they’re misbehaving is a first good step, but helping them understand why they need to step up and do better is likewise essential.

Diving deeper into my goals, I’m committed to helping reveal the particular character and genius of each child, but always within the circle of community, always with the point of view that their particular gifts obligate them to enhance, improve, enlarge the world beyond their personal self. My approach is to help them understand the balance between “blend in”—work together with the group and join your voice to the choir to make a glorious sound far beyond the single voice—and “stand out”—step forward and let yourself shine in the solo. Their job is to understand when it’s time to do either and for how long and for what reason. And this will require an equal measure of effort and responsibility from the student. I tell the kids that if they want the best education, I’ll meet them at the 50-yard line. I’ll do my part to walk towards them to be the best teacher I can be and they do their part of walk towards me to be the best student they can be.

With that in mind, here’s how I handled the situations that came up in today’s class with a group of 2nd graders I’ve never worked with before. Keep in mind that I never was the least bit angry and my tone was clear, yet firm.

SITUATION: While the whole circle was trying the clapping pattern, two kids were checked out and not practicing.

Nice job! But I did notice a couple of kids who weren’t practicing and I’m trying to imagine why not. Maybe they already know it so well and feel like they don’t need to practice. Maybe they found it was too hard and gave up without giving it a try. Maybe they just were thinking about other things? Do any of those kids want to tell me which it was? (No answer).
Well, if it was the first one, that’s not a good reason because if they’re good at it, they should set an example to help others. If it was the second one, they should just do as much as they can because it’s really important to practice the things that are hard for us. My list of things that are hard for me is really long, but every time I make an effort to do as much as I can the best I can, I feel so much better. And since we’re going to do this game for a long time, if you don’t practice from the beginning, you’ll get further and further behind. I know you can do it, or at least part of it, and I’m here to help you. You don’t have to get it perfect, you just have to try. Finally, if you were just daydreaming, well, that happens to me too, but I have to wake up and remember what I’m supposed to be doing. So let’s try again and see if all of us can practice. (We did and those two kids joined in.)

SITUATION: We turned to partners in order around the circle and one boy was with a girl and his friend pointed at him and laughed.

Okay, you all did a good job, but I did notice something that happened that can never happen in my class. Someone, I won’t say who, laughed at someone else for getting a particular partner. Now that behavior says something unacceptable to me, as if the partner his friend got was not a wonderful human being worthy of playing with. Or that it was weird for boys to be partners with girls. And if I didn’t say anything, the person who laughed and pointed might think that was okay. It’s not. We are here to discover that everyone in this room is a potential friend and at the very least, worthy of respect. If the person who did it wants to apologize later, that would be a nice idea. Meanwhile, I want to be clear that something like that can’t happen again. Okay?

SITUATION: One was hitting his partner too hard.

Nice job! But I did notice that someone was hitting his partner a little too hard and she was not enjoying it. We have to feel safe here and I don’t think she felt safe. I see her nodding while I talk. Do you want to say something to your partner? (She turned to the boy and said clearly, “You hit me too hard and I didn’t like it.” The boy claimed he didn’t do it on purpose.)
Thank you both. And by the way, sometimes when someone behaves like that, they think it’s kind of funny and they choose to have a good time at someone else’s expense. Not a good idea. Also, sometimes kids think that it will be fun to do something wrong on purpose or silly. But in my class, I want you to have fun by doing things well and doing things that make your partners and the rest of the class happy. Is that clear? Okay, let’s see if we can do it better this time. (They did.)

SITUATION: One student was sincerely struggling with the pattern. I went over to be his partner.

We’re getting better! I saw so many people who improved. But I particularly want to mention my partner. I have a feeling that he probably hasn’t played a lot of games like this. Is that true? (Partner nods yes.) And when our brain encounters something new, we have to work twice as hard to try to get it to understand the patterns and do it over enough times that it begins to get it. At the beginning, my partner was having trouble, but he was watching me so closely and I could see that each time we repeated the pattern, he was noticing which part was hard for him and trying to correct it. And by the end, he got it!

So you see that I have some strategies of oblique critique (“Somebody, I won’t say who…”) to avoid too much public shame, but sometimes direct critique (the girl telling her partner she didn’t like it). A little shame can be a good thing to curb our lower impulses. I tried to acknowledge the reasons why things might be hard and encourage the kids to make yet better efforts to work through them. I put things in the context of contributing positively to the group and the importance of having fun by doing things well instead of making fun of them.

While I’m doing these things, I can’t help but feel that the problem with the world is all the teachers who let these behaviors slide, condoning bullying by ignoring it or ineffectually punishing kids without them understanding why they should try harder and be better. And do you know how high the stakes are in these little moments in each class? Well, look at one person who went through our school systems untouched by teachers trying to help him find his own inner beauty and firmly holding him accountable for his bad treatment of others. A person who rose for all the wrong reasons to become the President of a powerful country and wreak havoc on the world. That’s pretty high stakes.

So let’s get going, teachers and do our job! And let’s get the governing institutions and Boards of Education to realign themselves to let us do that job and support us in our efforts.

PS The boy who I praised apparently is someone who has had trouble in many of his classes feeling successful. He came up to me at the end and said, “Did I do a good job?”
I hugged him and said, “You did a great job!!” and he walked out of class smiling ear to ear. That moment alone justified the jet fuel to India.

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