Sunday, February 06, 2011

A Tricky Balance

I have been known to be strict, especially with kids who really need it.  Kids who curse out their parents, for example, get to start calling all adults "sir" or "ma'am."  Students who argue with me when I ask them to do something get to choose from one of two answers: "Yes, Ms. ---" or "Yes, ma'am."  Those are their only options.  I got the kids to buy into this so well that when a new kid started up, the kids would say, "No, you have to say 'Yes, ma'am.'" 

There are children who need to be talked to brusquely.  There are kids who don't understand when you say something like, "Hey, sweetie, what I really need for you to do right now is..." They've already bashed someone's head in by the time you get to what you need them to do.  There are some kids who have a lot more respect for adults who will look them in the eye and say, "In your seat.  NOW." 

There are, of course, other kids who will be traumatized by this. Some kids will cry if you look at them funny, and you need to bend over backward to be gentle. 

I have come to the conclusion that being a good teacher (or parent, or social worker, or whatever) requires two things regarding this issue:

1. Understanding which kids fall into which category
2. Being able to be strict AND love them.

Some kids will take advantage of happy, lovey I-statements.  I'm sure there will be people angry with me for saying this, but anyone who's been a teacher of kids who talk back know that sometimes they just need to be shut down and not reasoned with.  You can't (and shouldn't) engage a kid who is talking rudely to an adult.  I don't actually think that is a good time to respond in depth with a lesson on empathy, like "When you are rude, I feel..." That is valuable, and should be done, but usually what the child needs is more along the lines of "No.  You will not talk to me that way. Go sit on the bench and we will talk in five minutes."

Walking in line is another hot-button issue for some people.  My students had to learn to walk in a straight, quiet single-file line.  Why? Not because I was training them for the military or to live in a fascist dictatorship.  Because there needed to be a tone set in which they did something that was visibly controlled, calm, and all together.  The line coming inside can set the tone for the entire day and they needed to understand the delineation between play time (which they need!) and learning time.  Because of this, we would redo coming inside in a line as many times as we needed to.

Any teacher (or other professional who works with children) worth his or her salt will very quickly be able to tell which category a child falls into, and it may actually change from day to day.  Even subbing, I have had kids who I responded to with "I know it's hard to have a new teacher, but your teacher will be back tomorrow and she'll love hearing about how well you did."  I have had other kids who I responded to, first thing, with, "Keep that up, and I will call your mother and she will be sitting in this classroom babysitting you."

As far as loving them, well, you really have to in order to be a good strict teacher.  You don't necessarily have to like them, but you do have to love them.  They know if you don't, and not only is it better if you do love them, I think it's much more effective.  My students could tell me, in the middle of a lecture in which I was furious and they had just been throwing a temper tantrum, that the reason they were in trouble was because I cared. 

I recently watched a teacher who is strict without being to pull off either of these two points.  She thinks it's great how she's hard on them and really making them learn, but they're not respectful of her, they're just scared and think she's mean.  I think the fundamental problem here is that she doesn't love them.  She's not being strict because she really believes in them, so it's empty.  It actually looks a lot more like bullying than good teaching, which I think is what she's going for.  I'm all for ruling with an iron fist (trust me when I say that the kids I teach did NOT have structure and really needed it) but the kids have to also know that you'd do anything for them and aren't just getting high on power.

Four years ago: Comments on Being Overly "Standardized"

Five years ago: Extreme Emotional Neediness

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