A couple of weeks ago I walked into a teacher’s lounge where a teacher in his thirties was giving advice to one of the teaching apprentices, a young guy around the age of twenty.
They were talking about a sports class that the young teacher would be giving to a group of 4th graders later that day. The older teacher promptly said to him:
“You’ve got to put them in their place, you’ve got to show them that you are in control. They are like animals, they will do anything to disrupt the class, and you know how kids are, you can’t let that happen. You HAVE TO show them that you are in control – you are the teacher.”
The younger teacher mumbled in agreement and I wondered whether he did in fact agree or whether he was merely accommodating the older teacher’s point of view to not get in trouble.
Now – several dimensions can be addressed and discussed in terms of analyzing the driving forces behind the older teacher’s words, but I will here focus on one in particular:
He was clearly coming from a starting-point of suppressed fear, as though he saw the children as savages who had to be contained to not break out into mutiny.
I imagine that it is similar to the psychological states of the colonizing forces who invaded Africa or India or North America, who believed that their fear was validated by the uncivilized nature of the natives, while in fact the fear came from a deep suppressed understanding that what was being done in the process of colonization was unacceptable on a very existential level – and therefore retaliation was to be expected.
It is tragic to consider how a teacher can be seen as someone reenacting the process of colonization casting the students as barbaric savages and himself as the militant, religious and political force of invastion, but is that not exactly what is being done to our children in schools, through a process of civilizing the wild and unruly nature that is a child?
A couple of days after the incident with the teacher I was visiting a preschool that I teach at. When I came, all the kids were outside and some of them had gathered around the ashes of a bonfire. They were giggling as they painted themselves on their faces and bodies with the leftover coal from the fire. I laughed with them as they explored different characters that they could play out with their painted faces, necks and hands.
At some point, a preschool teacher had seen what they were doing and abruptly marched down with a strict expression on her face. She lifted her right index finger and said to them:
“What on earth are you doing? You KNOW that you are not supposed to do that, will you stop this IMMEDIATELY!”
I could tell by her expression that she wasn’t actually angry or enraged or even indignant. As she marched down to scold them, she assumed the role of the ‘strict teacher’ and is otherwise a woman I know to be lighthearted and warm. So she assumed what she believed to be the ‘appropriate’ response to the children doing something they are not supposed to do, but that I don’t even know if they knew they weren’t supposed to do, or that she within herself disagreed with.
They had not harmed anyone, or themselves. They had not damaged property or deliberately misbehaved. At worst, it would require the teacher to take some time to wash the coal off their faces.. They were simply exploring their own expressions, their senses and their surroundings. This was something that could have been utilized as a stepping-stone for learning about the chemical compounds of coal or a discussion about acting and taking on various masks to change one’s expression. It could have been used to talk about how we utilize resources from nature to create paint. Instead it became a lesson of shame and regret.
After she walked away the kids looked devastated and confused. They had this expression of ‘knowing’ that they had done something wrong, but only because she had told them they had done something wrong – while inside themselves they knew on a deeper level that they were merely exploring and expressing in innocence.
When children are being scolded for expressing themselves, they learn that self-expression is wrong. They start associating self-expressing with fear of being scolded, with shame and regret. They stop expressing themselves. They stop exploring. When these children become adults they may develop social anxieties or fear of speaking in public. They may develop depression or eating disorders or have low self-esteem because the belief that there is something wrong with the core of their being, lingers like a perpetual dark cloud.
It is a shame that teachers believe that they must assume a role of being strict authoritarians to be able to educate children and it is an even bigger shame that they by doing so, teachers become nothing but lackeys for a system that has no interest in supporting the development of creative, whole, expressive human beings.
What must be understood is that we cannot as adults inspire children to grow and develop into their utmost potential, if we are not inspired ourselves. We cannot expect them to be open and honest if we ourselves carry a shadow of secrecy within our own lives. If we want transparency and trust and respect, we have to give it, but even more so, we have to live it.
It is conceited to believe that simply because we are adults and have more experience being in this world, we will automatically stand as examples of what it means to be an effective human being in this world.
Being an effective teacher or a parent for that matter requires constant self-reflection and self-evaluation and we must dare to expose our own weaknesses and mistakes so that we may be able to learn from them, work through them and take responsibility for them, so as to truly stand as examples for our children and the students we teach.
This is not an easy task. It requires courage to admit that we are not perfect; that we do not have it all figured out, that there are sides to us that are counterproductive and small-minded. But until we start facing and dealing with those aspects of ourselves, we cannot expect children to be anything more than the examples we show them.
It is interesting because it is as though we expect so much more from children than what we do from ourselves. We want them to be respectful, honest, open, corporative, generous and empathic, as though that is the standard of the principles upon which this world functions. But we all know that this is not so. And by teaching children that it is so, we are feeding them a lie. We are teaching them to live on a lie and in an illusion. It is no wonder that the world is in the state it is in when this is the example that we set forth, ambiguous at best and at worst, outright deceptive.
As a teacher working with towards implementing progressive solutions in the education system, I am particularly interested in dismantling the traditional student/teacher dynamics. I refuse to stand as a proxy for the colonizing powers of adulthood and instead celebrate the wild nature of each child.
To do that, I must first do it for myself. I must become my own teacher, because it is only that which I have developed in myself as a clear and authentic expression that I will be able to share with others. As the saying goes: children do not do what we say, they do what we do whether we like it or not. If we want them to do differently, we have to start with ourselves.