"It is harder for us to be nice to kids"
June 1, 2015 12:48 AM   Subscribe

When I look back over my notebooks and journals from the past 21 years there are plenty of things I regret. What I do not regret were the times we educators chose to be kind to a kid. The times when we gave a child a second–and then third and fourth chance. The times we decided to let a kid go on a field trip, ignoring some misdeed that might have excluded him from the trip so that a child who had never been further than the county line could see the world writ large. You know the drill.
"School should be a place for all sorts of kindnesses." Retiring school principal George Wood talks about what should be the most important part of school and why it has become difficult to achieve.
posted by MartinWisse (59 comments total) 72 users marked this as a favorite
 
"Students should leave us knowing that for this time in their lives they were in the company of people who genuinely liked them and worked in their best interests."

Many of my heros are teachers. Teachers who showed genuine interest in my learning; friends who are passionate and selfless in the classroom; teachers who encouraged my son during difficult adjustments early in his school career. One of the things that gives all of them these skills, and such power: kindness.

This is wonderful.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 1:17 AM on June 1, 2015 [15 favorites]


If you do want to measure a teachers performance, measure if this happens to them: (from the article)
I was trying to figure out how to finish this when a graduate from 2010 walked into my office. He was a difficult kid, barely made it to graduation. I know we helped him across the line. But he wanted me to be the first to know that he had just been offered a good job, with benefits, because, he said, he had graduated from our school. As he went off to tell his former teachers the good news, I realized that what we did for him, more than anything else, was to just be nice.
posted by DreamerFi at 1:57 AM on June 1, 2015 [22 favorites]


Words to live by.
posted by Coaticass at 2:58 AM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


"We can teach them that when it seems like there is no way out of the hole that they have dug, a member of the school staff will show up with a shovel."

Great article.
posted by parki at 3:12 AM on June 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


I worked in alternative education for 27 years, we received those kids who, because of their behaviors, were seldom shown any kindness. Granted, they made it difficult, but it didn't mean they didn't deserve it.

And, for those 27 years I worked with a group of educators, most of whom followed this philosophy, that worked to turn those kids around.

One individual, Nate Reid, with whom I worked for those entire 27 years, epitomized the belief that kids deserved kindness, and would find a way to express that in every single case. Nate has retired from that role now, and the education world is poorer for that fact.

These folks are certainly Heroes.
posted by HuronBob at 3:23 AM on June 1, 2015 [10 favorites]


It's a wonderful and moving letter. Among many other points I love that he wants children to feel that their teachers genuinely like them. I don't think all kids have that experience—not by a long shot.

When I think about my teachers the ones I remember best are those who were kind and those who were in love with their subjects (and enjoyed watching other people learn to appreciate them). I remember funny teachers, and eccentric characters (and often these were the kind ones) but the caring ones matter most.
posted by Songdog at 3:35 AM on June 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


There's a story I tell sometimes about my grade school principal, a man who seemed to just command respect by existing; he was tall, silver-haired, and spoke with a huge, booming voice; roomfuls of kids would quiet instantly when he walked into the room. But in fifth grade, when he saw I was having a total meltdown after having blown an easy word in the school spelling bee, he sat with me in my classroom while the rest of the class was at recess and he calmed me down by letting me cry it out and telling me about his daughter at college who'd similarly blown a test; "she knew every single question on that test," he kept telling me, it was just that she psyched herself out somehow, and it didn't mean she was dumb, it was just some people did that with tests sometimes, and it was okay.

But in recent years there's a detail I leave out - the fact that while we were sitting there, he was hugging me. I think I was even on his lap. And I leave that part out because I don't want to see the look of suspicion I know would cross people's faces when they hear about a man and a little girl alone in a room. And I know that if this were to happen today, if I were only ten and my principal saw me like that, he wouldn't be hugging me.

And it's that hug that helped just as much as his words. I was just a little girl and I needed it, and I am grateful he was there with it. But there are codes and policies in place now - and I totally understand why, don't misunderstand, I know that too many teachers and principals have offered "hugs" that were perversions. But I also know how much I needed that hug then as a fifth grader and I am heartbroken that I can't talk about it, and that other kids are less likely to get them when they need them.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:48 AM on June 1, 2015 [118 favorites]


It's well and good to be kind, but it always struck me that many teachers tried to be "kind" to kids who were abusing others, at the expense of their victims. How many times did they "ignore some misdeed" to let a kid go on a field trip and torment the kid who "tattled" on him?
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:19 AM on June 1, 2015 [12 favorites]


Yes, be kind, because that's a trait of basic human decency. It shouldn't even need to be said, but it does: be kind.

But first, write quality lesson plans.

Your kindness must be in addition to--not instead of--sound instruction.
posted by etc. at 4:46 AM on June 1, 2015 [16 favorites]


Your kindness must be in addition to--not instead of--sound instruction.

I'd prefer the kindness first, because for a lot of students the school is the only place where there is a chance for kindness in a given day (just like for many students school is the only place where they might eat).

I was a bad and hostile student in high school (bored, a bit socially awkward, and with a lot of anger), and even so there were a few teachers and administrators who chose to be kind. In responding to my arrogance and anger with kindness, they deescalated and broke my stupid and useless dynamic of "no, fuck you!" that I was feeling locked into. In retrospect those people (only some of whose names I even remember) deserve medals for not just throwing the book at me.

And I was a student from a stable and loving home -- a lot of my friends had very difficult situations with no safety net, and that same kindness was critical for them.

We have lost a lot with zero tolerance policies and "get tough" campaigns that mimic the societal lock them up and throw away the key attitudes.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:22 AM on June 1, 2015 [18 favorites]


I think you're preaching to the choir, etc. In addition to being good teachers, kindness is invaluable. It's vastly underrated, in my opinion.
posted by h00py at 5:23 AM on June 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


There is no benefit to this toughness. Getting tough on kids will not make them tougher or any smarter. Forcing educators to act like their hands are tied at the most important moments in a child’s life only teaches children that the adults in their lives are powerless. Turning a deaf ear to the needs of kids, to moments when we could be kind rather than just follow the rules, does not help kids learn anything except that those in charge are operating at the lowest level of ethical reasoning.
Wow, and yes. School is also a place where kids learn about being human; tied hands, zero tolerance, and test-centeredness aren't necessarily the best models for how to be.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:23 AM on June 1, 2015 [11 favorites]


I really didn't become a human until after I left high school with my 13 failed courses and endless rounds of summer school and never having better than a a D average and in some cases more absences than percents. There were even classes I probably shouldn't have passed by objective standards but they still saw something and passed me. I hated high school and high school hated me right back. Yet somehow those people laid an academic foundation that got me to graduate second in my class from University, as a mature student, with 7 different academic awards and a provincial graduate school scholarship.

Those sneaky persistent fuckers.
posted by srboisvert at 5:45 AM on June 1, 2015 [16 favorites]


tied hands, zero tolerance, and test-centeredness aren't necessarily the best models for how to be
Some people would say it is exactly the best model for how to be.

We need to stop listening to these people.
posted by fullerine at 6:03 AM on June 1, 2015 [8 favorites]


Reminds me of the letter Camus sent when he won the Nobel Prize...
19 November 1957

Dear Monsieur Germain,

I let the commotion around me these days subside a bit before speaking to you from the bottom of my heart. I have just been given far too great an honour, one I neither sought nor solicited.

But when I heard the news, my first thought, after my mother, was of you. Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching and example, none of all this would have happened.

I don't make too much of this sort of honour. But at least it gives me the opportunity to tell you what you have been and still are for me, and to assure you that your efforts, your work, and the generous heart you put into it still live in one of your little schoolboys who, despite the years, has never stopped being your grateful pupil. I embrace you with all my heart.

Albert Camus
posted by Segundus at 6:21 AM on June 1, 2015 [129 favorites]


That just brought tears to my eyes, Segundus.
posted by clarknova at 6:25 AM on June 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


I think part of the problem too is that teachers are terrified of justifying judgment calls - why child A got chances and child B didn't, for example.
posted by corb at 6:50 AM on June 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


I feel that way (Camus quote) about more than 8 of my teachers, a principal, and a day care provider. (I changed schools a lot.) I have made an effort to get in touch and have been able to let some of them know how I feel (probably less impressive without the Nobel Prize). But because it isn't always possible to tell people, can I just tell all the educators on metafilter: thank you. You saved my life more than once, you planted time bombs of understanding that took years if not decades to detonate, you helped create a human where there wasn't one, you were one of the very few sources I had of any feeling that I was acceptable or welcome or respected or liked or loved or adored or had value or a right to exist or a right to agency, you made it possible for me to stay passionate about learning in spite of the hellish bureaucracy that is the education system, you instilled in me values and knowledge I made sure I passed along to my kid, and in doing so you contributed to my offspring's psychological and physical well-being and education, and you did all that while I was a shitty student and while also being mangled by the same education system/that specific school/administration. Thank you.
posted by you must supply a verb at 7:07 AM on June 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


Been teaching for about ten years now (though far less than full time over the last couple years). It only took me the first year to learn this: literally everything you do as a teacher is wrong.

Someone thinks you're too harsh, and someone thinks you're not tough enough. Someone thinks you aren't focusing enough on "quality lesson plans" while someone else thinks you need to learn to be "kind." That guy in the What Do Teachers Make? video that people pass around online so much? I want to find him and tell him to get over himself and let the kids go to the fucking bathroom, because it is Just. Not. That. Big. A. Deal.

And I guess it's what we get for being part of a universal experience. My programmer friends can talk about their jobs to each other, but for everyone else, we just kinda have to take their word for how things are. Much the same with my lawyer friends. But me? Everyone has at least been through school, and therefore everyone has an opinion on how it should be done right, and it's almost always based solely on their experience with their teachers, forgetting how it is colored by their individual family, economic and social situations.

There's a lot about this article that resonated with me. And there was stuff that I found off. Same here with the comments. But again, we're both teachers, this guy and I, and literally everything we do is wrong.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 7:17 AM on June 1, 2015 [26 favorites]


I had a history teacher in high school who did something truly cruel to a friend of mine. Maybe it was under the guise of what she figured where the best interests of the child, but I have never forgotten the power that our educators have over us.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:33 AM on June 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


I did a teaching certificate and then for [huge job market contraction the year I finished and life reasons] did not actually teach. I do some community ed teaching now. Thinking back both on my own time in school and on the teaching I've done, I think that the single most important thing you can do as a teacher - the thing that makes the rest work - is to create a classroom where everyone is heard and acknowledged and everyone has the experience of hearing and acknowledging each other. I don't think this will solve all social problems in terms of bullying and inequality - and believe me, I had a farcically miserable, awful, adults-complicit-in-bullying adolescence - but when I look back on the classes that were not actually godawful, and when I consider the classes I've managed to teach that have worked, they have all involved an awful lot of time "wasted" on building a sense of the class as a group.

In essence, this is about being kind to kids. Part of me hates it, because I think back on how I was bullied and how no one was there for me, and how I was a "good" kid - and I think "why should the 'bad' kids get help when often they were my worst tormentors". And that's actually a risk that we talked about in teacher training, and something that I've seen in myself as a teacher - it's very easy to actually end up favoring, for example, a bright, troubled, charismatic kid over that kid's victim. I mean, I wasn't charismatic - I was the old original solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

Now that I think about this, it's why I think that there has to be an emphasis on the class as a whole - otherwise, you're risking either punishing/neglecting/othering a "bad" kid who needs support or helping that kid while giving the impression that nothing the "bad" kid does is really bad because they're really a victim of circumstance.
posted by Frowner at 7:37 AM on June 1, 2015 [8 favorites]


I think part of the problem too is that teachers are terrified of justifying judgment calls - why child A got chances and child B didn't, for example.

In 15 years of teaching I've never had to do this... I don't even think about it.

One big point that I don't think was mentioned in the article: if you treat that 'problem' kid kindly, the other students will, too. They take their cues from the teacher, so if he is obviously (or even not so obviously) contemptuous of that kid screaming under the table, so will they be.

And by kindly I don't even mean the hugging and lap sitting (?!), but just simple respect. Treat them like you treat the other kids, talk to them like human beings. When you have to talk to them about their behavior, take them out in the hall, don't do it in front of everybody.

And never, ever lose your temper... you just can't; the second you do, you've lost, you're being a terrible teacher. If you lose your temper easily, please don't go into education, at least not with kids.

literally everything you do as a teacher is wrong.

I get what you're saying here, but I've never felt this way. When people start talking bs about teaching, I correct them where necessary and then let it go. The only people whose opinions matter are my students and their parents, and I've heard mostly positive feedback over the years. Being a male teacher in grades 1, 2, 3 is a huge advantage in that regard, though, so my experience is not typical.
posted by Huck500 at 7:49 AM on June 1, 2015 [10 favorites]


This is beautiful. Also:
The times we decided to let a kid go on a field trip, ignoring some misdeed that might have excluded him from the trip so that a child who had never been further than the county line could see the world writ large.
Tying extracurriculars to academic performance and other unrelated things has to be among the cruelest and most counterproductive ideas ever cooked up by a school administrator. Find the only part of school that matters to a kid, and the best (and often last) chance for them to find engagement and support at school; then take it away from the very students who need it most. In a high school context where students can literally walk away from school itself any time they want, it's even worse.

It also enforces the idea that there are a set of specific real school activities and that everything else is extra and not valuable, which is grossly unfair given all the learning that happens in extracurricular contexts. Aside from basic literacy, numeracy, and perhaps foreign language skills, very little of the content one learns in school actually matters to anyone. It's a good way to give kids a taste of subjects that might interest them and general knowledge of the world, but nothing they actually study is as important as the soft skills and habits of thought they acquire while in school. And its those areas where extracurricular classes excel. (I'm a career academic and I had many fantastic teachers, but no lecture class came anywhere close to band as the source of lessons that are still valuable to me today.)

I can understand why they do it. But, I find it hard to believe that motivating a few kids to move from a D to a C average in high school could possibly make up for all those who suffer joyless years in school or drop out because they can't make the grades.
posted by eotvos at 8:29 AM on June 1, 2015 [11 favorites]


I'm glad that the article goes beyond grade school in arguing for kindness; I've been thinking this sort of argument through at the college level as I think about how to deal with problem students.

I have this particularly on my mind this week. I was out for drinks the other night with some fellow adjuncts/grad students and we were telling stories about ludicrous student attempts at plagiarism. One of them told a story about an incredibly minor instance: the students had been asked to find some examples of informal logical fallacies, and one student had turned in a set that was obviously from a list on the internet, since they were extracted from a numbered/bulleted list and still had the formatting. The school had a really formal policy for dealing with all plagiarism, and so my colleague submitted this instance (a ten minute assignment worth maybe 2% of the final grade in one course) to the machine.

When the mechanism finished, the student had been kicked out of their program.

She told this story and cackled like a fucking supervillain at the end of it—justice had been served, the one who tried to get out of the assignment had been duly punished, and learned that they couldn't get away with such shirking. I guess.

There's a sentiment that's right, here, which is that our role as educators—even at the college level—has an element that goes beyond lesson plans, and that we're teaching our students lessons about life that aren't just about, say, informal logic, or aesthetic philosophy. But I think there's a tendency to take that truth and distort it, perhaps out of one's understandable annoyance at students who seem to be trying to stretch your patience, or who don't seem to be taking school seriously, and decide that our role is to Teach Them a Lesson About Consequences, where that lesson is that all problematic action brings about the worst possible result. Which doesn't need to be the truth about consequences—it's a mechanical idea of action that has no room for forgiveness, excuse, or exemption—and which shows that those who think they're teaching a Lesson About Consequences may not have done all their homework on that lesson themselves.
posted by felix grundy at 8:46 AM on June 1, 2015 [14 favorites]


After all, children are forced to attend, with little or no choice over the building, staff, or bus driver they draw.

You could start here. Sure, we'll take away all their agency, tell them what to do all the time, constantly measure them against each other, and give absolute power to teachers, but maybe we can be nice about it. Feh. I hated school. HATED school even though I was quite good at the learning bit. Some teachers were nice, some weren't, but if you'd wanted to know what I really wanted, it would've been control over my own life. I read articles like this and see nothing but simpering paternalism.
posted by Wemmick at 8:55 AM on June 1, 2015 [10 favorites]


Your kindness must be in addition to--not instead of--sound instruction.

I didn't see where he suggested otherwise. I didn't think this was a complete list of what teachers needed to do, but instead something which doesn't get sufficient attention which really should.
posted by disconnect at 8:59 AM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


But, I find it hard to believe that motivating a few kids to move from a D to a C average in high school could possibly make up for all those who suffer joyless years in school or drop out because they can't make the grades.

Most definitely. I've long felt that the policies tying participation in "extra-curricular" activities to academic performance should be reversed. As in, not eliminated but literally made the opposite: students struggling academically should be required to participate in an extra-curricular, usually team-based, activity. It would be so good in so many ways--I was a MS & HS band teacher for a few years at the beginning of my career, and some of my best students, who benefitted the most from being in band, were often students who were not succeeding elsewhere on campus in some way(s).

Regarding the FPP, I agree wholeheartedly, and not just for kids. As a college professor for the past 15 years, kindness has been one of the most successful teaching tools I have. (It also makes me a more compassionate person generally.) I have students come into my program with real anger management problems, self-esteem struggles, depression, anxiety, all sorts of stuff; invariably, the first bridge I am able to build in developing a relationship with those students is made of kindness and understanding. Especially as an academic advisor to over two dozen young adults each year, it really is fundamental to empowering each student to accept themselves a little more, and to attune to their own efforts and abilities moving forward, not their histories or what others may or may not think of them (and also, to motivate them to trust and accept my referral to psychological counseling when needed).

This aligns with my experience as a teacher more broadly: (not to raise a big tangent, but) I remain unconvinced that one can actually teach another anything. All learning takes place in the imagination, and it seems to me that effective teaching is more about enabling students to teach themselves in a variety of ways, of creating settings and experiences where the right kind of things are available for them to learn, and so forth. My pedagogy is quite Socratic in that sense, and I work hard to empower students in all ways, because we all are really only with teachers formally for a very short time in our lives--the rest of our lives we need to know how to teach ourselves, to be continual learners in the world, in all ways.

Creating an environment where students of any age and any background feel safe, where they know they will be consistently treated fairly and kindly (even--especially--when their efforts may fall short), really empowers them to be vulnerable enough to learn. Because learning involves vulnerability, it involves acknowledging ignorance, considering it, and addressing it directly, and taking risks by putting forth real effort when you may fail, and fail in front of your peers. If I can create an environment where we all acknowledge our imperfectness, and all agree we're working to become better at something that matters, my students will mostly teach themselves. I just need to use good materials, a decent pedagogy, and continue to both encourage and criticize as needed.

(The ability to give clear explanations of concepts in a variety of ways, etc., is helpful. I don't mean to imply that there is no skill or expertise in what teachers do--simply that, in my view, what we do is much more about enabling people to learn than teaching them stuff.)
posted by LooseFilter at 9:05 AM on June 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


Sure, we'll take away all their agency, tell them what to do all the time, constantly measure them against each other, and give absolute power to teachers, but maybe we can be nice about it.

This is a fair and important criticism of American schooling as a system, but is not really a criticism of teachers. Every single teacher I know (who is any good at it) also hates this system, and agrees with this criticism. But teachers are powerless in this system, too, and no one listens to teachers when issues of reform are raised--in fact, in my experience teachers are not trusted to speak about education reform, because we're all grubby takers or something.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:09 AM on June 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


My mom has been teaching for ~30 years and is gearing up to retire. She loves the kids and hates the crap that the system makes them all do. She'd rather keep teaching, frankly, but just can't take it anymore.
posted by drewbage1847 at 9:31 AM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


LooseFilter: "but is not really a criticism of teachers."

The author was a principal though. He's a founder of The Forum for Education and Democracy, which, "is a national education "action tank" committed to the public, democratic role of public education — the preparation of engaged and thoughtful democratic citizens."

I don't see how children are supposed to learn a spirit of self-government without addressing the fundamentally undemocratic structure of schools.
posted by Wemmick at 9:36 AM on June 1, 2015


decide that our role is to Teach Them a Lesson About Consequences, where that lesson is that all problematic action brings about the worst possible result.

This is, unfortunately, not far from the truth for some people in US society. For example, the poor, mostly minority, underclass gets a lot of "consequences" out of otherwise minor inputs. I'm thinking here of the municipal citations schemes revealed via the scrutiny of places like Ferguson MO - people can wind up in jail for unpaid parking tickets.

In contrast, for people with more resources, second, third, and fourth chances are pretty much expected.
posted by theorique at 9:44 AM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


He's a founder of The Forum for Education and Democracy

Then perhaps he's one of the people working toward a solution? Addressing the fundamentally undemocratic structure of schools (again, a fair criticism) requires the most fundamental kinds of solutions, which are therefore the most difficult both to conceive and to realize. The necessity (and urgency) of the task doesn't make it any less difficult, nor the social issues it entails any less intractable. I would hesitate to dismiss a person who is both working for reform, and--it seems--working from the right perspectives.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:44 AM on June 1, 2015


It shouldn't be about being nice. It should be about students knowing someone cares about them. Or, a quote from a colleague years ago that became a mantra of sorts for me: "They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."

I support philosophies of "be nice" far more than philosophies that have even a whiff of "zero tolerance" or that sort of thing, but I've also taught in schools that gave you eye-opening perspectives on Leo Durocher's old saw "nice guys finish last".

I'm mixed on Mr. Wood's his advice, seeing as it feels a bit like he's waxing nostalgic about a long career rather than keenly looking at the present. I agree with him that the memories of a teacher's encouragement, empathy, or thoughtfulness will provide the most meaningful resonance with students down the line. But, for most teachers, "just be nice" is blindingly obvious... but simultaneously patronizing in the face of the complexities of managing a high school classroom. Consider the work required early in the school year, balancing the approaches of Mr. Nice Guy and Mr. Appropriate Enforcer, getting to know each and every student beyond a grade (30 seconds, every student, every day -- another mantra), building an environment where students know you care.

I'm a bit distrustful of distilling things to "Just be nice": it's too seductive, too promising, too simple. At some level I'm picking nits, since his general focus on and advocation for teachers providing emotional, non-quantifiable support for students is right on, and I only wish to elevate that, across the board, in educational discussions -- it's NOT all about the test. But, please don't gloss over the real, roll-up-your-sleeves work needed behind those moments of understanding or patience from an educator.
posted by Theophrastus Johnson at 9:48 AM on June 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


I am not convinced democracy is the best model for a school. One of the things school can do, given the right staff and ability to give attention to individual students, is allow everyone a voice without devolving into the dreaded clique of a "consensus-driven" group. You need guidance and authority for that. In America, though, "authority" is never associated with the word "kind".

Indeed, "kind" is a sentiment which is actively disparaged in our society as a symptom of weakness. Goddess forbid.
posted by maxwelton at 9:52 AM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


> She loves the kids and hates the crap that the system makes them all do.

I am friends with or related to about a dozen teachers, and I've heard every single one of them say something along those lines.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:54 AM on June 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


Ooh, I just thought of something that's related to the tying-treats-to-performance, that's arguably an example of cruelty:

My 3rd grade math teacher had this whole scheme about drilling us on our times tables, where she'd give us timed quizzes every so often. And you didn't just have to get the right answers - you also had to fill in the entire sheet. And as a "reward", she said that if there was a quiz that everyone passed, we would get a pizza party the following week in class. But as a caveat, she said that if even just one person didn't complete the sheet, then the rest of the class was out of luck.

For whatever reason, it took me a month and a half to be able to successfully pass one of those fucking things. And it wasn't that I didn't have the knowledge; my problem was successful recall under a time deadline. All of the questions I answered I did so correctly; but I would always be missing a few simply because I didn't get to them in time. And I was frequently the only person who didn't finish it. And there were times that everyone else would be looking at me hopefully as we handed in our papers, asking "didja finish this time?" and I had to tell them no and the whole rest of the class would be pissed at me because I'd cost them all the pizza party.

That kind of thing had absolutely nothing to do with retention of knowledge and everything to do with making me feel like I was letting all the other kids down and I hated it. Schoolhouse Rock did more to school me in the times tables than that exercise did; all that did was make me dread those fucking tests because I was afraid of letting the class down yet again for writing too slow, for fuck's sake.

That kind of thing - effectively tying a classwide reward to the actions of one single student - is a thing that should be buried in cement and dumped off a pier.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:03 AM on June 1, 2015 [31 favorites]


But in recent years there's a detail I leave out - the fact that while we were sitting there, he was hugging me. I think I was even on his lap. And I leave that part out because I don't want to see the look of suspicion I know would cross people's faces when they hear about a man and a little girl alone in a room. And I know that if this were to happen today, if I were only ten and my principal saw me like that, he wouldn't be hugging me.

That reminds me of something that happened to me in sixth grade. Middle school was absolute hell for me, but the one bright spot was chorus with Mr. Kelly. Pretty much everybody loved him because he was super nice and wore funny ties and had a bunch of tattoos and rode a motorcycle. Anyway, every year all the chorus students would go on a class trip to Six Flags (because why not, I guess). When I went in sixth grade, I didn't have a whole lot of friends and none of them were in chorus. I kind of wandered around for a while before I found Mr. Kelly with a couple of other girls and they let me hang out and go on rides with them. But one of the rides was much, much scarier than I had anticipated. I started to freak out but Mr. Kelly, who was sitting next to me, instantly wrapped his arms around me and kept them around me the entire ride, reassuring me again and again. I don't think he had any fun on that ride at all because he spent the whole time making sure I was okay.

As in your story, nothing inappropriate was going on, especially since he was openly gay. Like, really openly gay. Like two of his tattoos were a rainbow triangle and an AIDS ribbon. Which I saw for the first time that day at Six Flags, and I distinctly remember looking at the triangle in shock, and then looking up at his beaming smile, and then looking back down at the triangle and figuring, "Well, if he's happy, then I guess that's okay." So he had a lifelong positive impact on me twice over the course of a single field trip.

Anyway, my point is, I agree with you that hugs can be important to a child in distress and America has maybe gotten so paranoid about child molestation that we get too suspicious over physical expressions of simple kindness. Also that Mr. Kelly was/presumably still is the best.
posted by Anyamatopoeia at 10:29 AM on June 1, 2015 [10 favorites]


Before I started working here-- I'm a school librarian now, which I did not expect to love-- someone told me to remember that I'm probably the only nice adult some kids talk to all day so my job is primarily be a positive adult who is interested in them as people (and to a certain extent, please keep it down to a dull roar, bring your books back sometime this year, and spit out your gum.)

I have been finding that being kind to the kids is healing over a place where I kept all the unkind things that happened to me in middle school.
posted by blnkfrnk at 10:51 AM on June 1, 2015 [21 favorites]


When I worked in evaluation for youth development, one often bandied idea was that the most significant factor between kids with resilience and kids without was having a third adult (neither mom nor dad) *persistently* in their lives. The non-profit that I worked for, Friends of the Children, would connect a paid, full time, professional mentor to youth from kindergarten until high school graduation. These kids were chosen from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, but after a couple years they were freaking amazing. Sometimes a mini-me of their mentor or often with their own unique interests. I get angry whenever people throw up their hands as if intergenerational problems will always be with us. Nurture bests nature. I've seen it. The problem is that paying professional mentors looks expensive on paper but is a bargain compared to the externalized costs of recidivism, early pregnancy, poor educational outcomes and unreached potential.

The flip side is that youth from disadvantaged backgrounds are very used to broken promises. There are also studies that show that when youth recieve a mentor but that relationship lasts less than a year, then the youth will actually have _worse_ outcomes. Consistency is a big deal for kids who have none.

The problem is that workers within a poorly managed institution burn out and burned out case workers, teachers, etc, are most likely to take it out on their beneficiaries. Solving the problem of keeping teachers fresh, excited and connected is a big deal.
posted by Skwirl at 11:26 AM on June 1, 2015 [8 favorites]


As in, not eliminated but literally made the opposite: students struggling academically should be required to participate in an extra-curricular, usually team-based, activity

Oh sweet Jesus no. I suppose I wasn't struggling academically per se - my grades were awful, my writing atrocious, but my actual grasp of the subject matter generally above average - and if you'd made me, the loner with their nose buried in a book at the back of the classroom, partake in extra curriculars, particularly team-based ones, all you would've done is prolong the suffering, the torment that was other people, and hastened the thoughts of suicide. If the school had stood between me and my room, my books, and my computer after the school bell rang, I would've killed myself or it.

For a lot of us school was irredeemably hell, and the solution is most assuredly not more school.
posted by Dysk at 11:42 AM on June 1, 2015 [9 favorites]


As in, not eliminated but literally made the opposite: students struggling academically should be required to participate in an extra-curricular, usually team-based, activity

That sounds like it would be setting up extra-curriculars as punishment and sports as punishment, which I don't think is a good idea. It also sounds like it would put even more time constraints on working class students, who are more likely to struggle and less likely to have really flexible schedules due to parental business and their own jobs.

And it sounds, as Dysk points out, like it would be incredibly punitive to any child who was struggling with school because of school itself or because of other students. I could just picture the poor depressed girl in my grade who didn't shower having to do more sports after school with the very pack of dire wolves who made her life so awful.
posted by Frowner at 12:10 PM on June 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


The world is a terrible place when every adult is an emotion-withholding automaton whose only job is to give consequences. Knowing you will grow up to live among them, what is there to look forward to? The only way to win is to have control over them, probably by making more money (or becoming a police officer), and if you can't do that, why try?
posted by amtho at 12:14 PM on June 1, 2015 [8 favorites]


I read this article and started pondering on how school was in the 70s, and what seems obvious now, but not at the time was how completely isolated the hard-case disciplinarian teachers and administrators seemed to be not just from the students, but from other teachers and staff. Although I never saw any of them publicly rebuked for their excesses.
posted by lagomorphius at 12:24 PM on June 1, 2015


...what seems obvious now, but not at the time was how completely isolated the hard-case disciplinarian teachers and administrators seemed to be not just from the students, but from other teachers and staff.

Two things:

1. My credential program professors said over and over again that we should not talk about our personal lives with our students. Tell them if you're married or have a kid or whatever, sure, but don't talk about hobbies or what you do on vacation or any of that stuff. And yeah, some of them gave this advice in the hopes that we'd really only keep it minimal, but not entirely cut out...but I have found that talking about my personal life and just being a person to them can be super, super important. When teachers stay detached and "strictly professional," kids can get left feeling like their teachers don't actually go home at night to families or friends or whatever, but rather they go plug into a pod somewhere and recharge until morning. Building some level of personal connection is critical for establishing empathy. "Don't talk about your personal life" was basically the worst advice my credential program gave.

2. As far as being cut off from other teachers and staff: this is a tricky thing to navigate, because sometimes the most obvious ways to stay connected do the most harm. I've been to a whole lotta schools as a sub, and the most reliably toxic place in the school is the teacher's lounge at lunch. If you want to stay emotionally healthy and keep a good attitude about the profession, you stay the hell out of there, because that's where the burnouts go to commiserate and bitch. It's like a venomous feedback loop of awful.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 12:39 PM on June 1, 2015 [11 favorites]


"Don't talk about your personal life" was basically the worst advice my credential program gave.

I fully agree with this on principle, but at the same time I play in bands with a couple of schoolteachers, and both are terrified of the prospect of their students or colleagues finding out about their being in rock bands (broadly defined) because it would almost certainly cost them their jobs (something which infuriates and confuses me to no end) so if the culture around teacher employment practices is similar where you are, it may be pragmatically sound.
posted by Dysk at 1:27 PM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


Dysk: I totally get this. :) I do a lot less subbing now than writing, and half of what I write is steamy urban fantasy...and by "steamy," I mean you could call it racy or you could call it straight-up porn depending on where your personal lines are on the subject. Students do NOT hear about what I do to pay the bills these days.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 2:24 PM on June 1, 2015


being in rock bands (broadly defined) ... would almost certainly cost them their jobs

Where on earth do they teach that being in a rock band would cost them their jobs? Private schools, maybe? There is absolutely no way here in the US that a teacher could be fired for being in a band... in fact, I know a couple of teachers who are in bands and invite coworkers and parents to come see them. Are teaching jobs in the UK really that tenuous?
posted by Huck500 at 3:41 PM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


In 15 years of teaching I've never had to do this... I don't even think about it.

So, sharing time. My kid got caught in school with a swiss Army knife - she had used her backpack for camping, and it was in her backpack. One of the other kids saw it and reported her. I wound up meeting with the leadership, who were like "Yes, we're really aware that she had no ill intent, and that this is only barely a knife, and mostly for other things, and yes, we're aware that it's technically under the size that we have to Zero Tolerance for, but what if other children found out that she had had a knife and WASN'T suspended? Then they would all want to bring knives and not be suspended!"

So I applaud you for not being prey to that sort of thinking, but it seems pretty clear some educators are.
posted by corb at 3:57 PM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Are teaching jobs in the UK really that tenuous?

It's not that teaching jobs are tenuous so much as it's different cultural norms around teachers (both teach at state schools). Like I said, it confuses and infuriates me that it's how it is too - it's completely alien to me and my experiences in Denmark and Hong Kong.
posted by Dysk at 4:42 PM on June 1, 2015


In the US, in North Carolina, there is at least one district where it is strongly hinted that a teacher who is seen at a local restaurant drinking a beer is putting their job at risk.
posted by sonic meat machine at 6:19 PM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's hard to be a person with the kids when you can't really be a person because you'll be fired. This is yet another place where testing and standards at the expense of education is doing a major disservice to students, because how do you expect them to grow up to be interesting, opinionated, and kind if you're not allowed to model that?

I'm exceptionally lucky that I got hired at all given how family-unfriendly the general tenor of my life is to most people (in many states they're not allowed to say the word "trans" in health class or something, right?) I really do think that at my level, middle school, they're not learning much besides how to be people so we really ought to give up and set up a service learning kind of thing so they can start sorting that out and get a rest from all the frantic testing.
posted by blnkfrnk at 6:51 PM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


I mean, just plain rock? That's dad territory. Surprising it's a problem.

I remember the unkindnesses of elementary teachers as if they happened yesterday. One of them was from a dance teacher, who is actually a sweet guy if you're a grownup and not a chubby, uncoordinated kid. But if you are that kid, you will grow up thinking it is a total embarrassment to everyone when you move.

Perhaps the effect of the well-known dickishness of gym teachers on the American obesity epidemic has been under-examined.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:07 PM on June 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


Perhaps the effect of the well-known dickishness of gym teachers on the American obesity epidemic has been under-examined.

Oh God yes. I shudder everytime I hear people suggest more gym classes as a solution to the obesity epidemic, or lament the cutting of physical education classes. Do you people remember gym? Do you seriously want to subject your children to more of that? I'm all for instilling healthy habits and attitudes, but the Darwinian hellscape of gym class is not how you do that.

Where on earth do they teach that being in a rock band would cost them their jobs? Private schools, maybe?


Fun fact: the band that did the song "Breakfast at Tiffany's" included two teachers at a Catholic school. They were fired for being in a rock band.
posted by Anyamatopoeia at 8:16 PM on June 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


I only remember my elementary school principal as Mr Sock Tie, because he wore these knit ties all the time (this was in the 70s). When we were leaving after grade 7 my friends and I made him ties from old socks (he knew about his nick name) and he wore them all day and looked just so proud to do it.

He was a guy who made us feel loved.
posted by chapps at 8:41 PM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


I read an article/opinion piece a couple years ago written by a (female) teacher (I forget at what level). The author discussed being commended by her supervisor for her warmth and approachability to students, pointing out that this was often viewed as a personality trait rather than a professional skill, that there were (obviously) gendered aspects to this, and discussed other problems with the personality versus professional skill position. I don't think she explicitly made the connection to issues around expectations of and compensation for emotional labor in service industry jobs, but the analysis was similar, I think. Anyone else remember this and have a link?
posted by eviemath at 9:34 AM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


In the US, in North Carolina, there is at least one district where it is strongly hinted that a teacher who is seen at a local restaurant drinking a beer is putting their job at risk.

In at least one district in Arizona, teachers have been cautioned that if they are overheard in public using a curse word (broadly defined) they may be reported and disciplined.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:12 AM on June 2, 2015


eviemath, I know that comes up a lot in discussing evaluations of college professors, where male professors are lauded for their brilliant research and female professors for their warmth with students, in a field where research is usually prioritized over teaching ability.

For example:
How We Talk About Our Teachers
"We're evaluating men and women on different traits or having different expectations for individuals who are doing the same job," says Erin Davis, who teaches gender studies at Cornell College.

Davis notes that, on campus, a professor's ability to nurture or mentor a student is certainly valued, but intellectual ability is generally the more prized quality in a professor. And Schmidt's review of student perceptions suggests men have the advantage in that department.
What Do Letters of Recommendation Reveal About Gender Bias?
Well, in an attempt to prepare myself for job applications, I scoured the internet for helpful resources. One of the articles that I came across described research showing that letters of recommendation tend to highlight different traits for men and women, differences that is seems may actually put women at a disadvantage for getting the job.

What the authors found was that letter writers tend to use different adjectives when describing men and women, and the adjectives that are used more often for women may make them less hireable. Women, they found, are more often described in communal terms, terms such as helpful, kind, sympathetic, agreeable, interpersonal, warm. In contrast, men are more often described in agentic terms, terms such as assertive, ambitious, daring, outspoken, independent, intellectual. Professors who rated the hireability of hundreds of applicants based solely on their letters of recommendation tended to rate applicants as less hireable when they were described more often in communal terms (helpful, kind). Since women tend to be described this way, it puts them at a disadvantage....
posted by jaguar at 10:30 AM on June 2, 2015


Yup. The piece I'm thinking of was from the pre-university level, and just summarized that one issue of emotional labor actually being a skill very nicely, though.
posted by eviemath at 10:58 AM on June 2, 2015


This essay had me thinking abput feacheds all day. Then i saw this: Awesome Alberta teachers make goofy 80s music medley video for their students' grad class.

Sorry its kind of tangential...
posted by chapps at 5:42 PM on June 2, 2015


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