Rational Creatures

When I say therefore that they must be treated as rational creatures I mean that you should make them sensible by the mildness of your carriage and the composure even in your correction of them that what you do is reasonable in you and useful and necessary for them and that it is not out of [caprice], passion, or fancy that you command or forbid them anything.
— John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education

I have a portrait of Teddy Rosevelt nailed high up on the wall in the back of my classroom. The kids haven't noticed it, or if they have, they haven't said anything. It's up there as a reminder of his one famous quote, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." It's mostly up there for the speak softly part. 

I have him up there because I don't speak as softly as I should. I needed a reminder. My voice gets loud, harsh, and anxious because I often find myself experiencing emotions. Like fear. And frustration. And desperation. This happens when that one student is wrestling for the second time that day or talking to their friend during read-to-self or the lesson is an utter failure because I wasn't paying attention to them as much as I should have been. So I harshly call out their name from the other side of class. My voice is strained and hurried when they ask for help on a math problem. I remind them that I explained it three times already in an effort to divert the blame to them instead of owning the reality that I apparently didn't teach it well enough if I had to explain it three times. I hate that. Speaking to them from this place of negative "passion" doesn't feel right and doesn't seem to result in good things.

I've had a few teachers tell me that you can't let them see that they made you feel something, because then they would know they won. I have many issues with that idea (like, the understanding that you shouldn't be at war with your students), but mostly, because I don't think thats the best reason for why not to react out of those negative emotions. I'm not saying that we should teach as dispassionate Vulcans, but I think when negative feelings drive reactions, the constraints and expectations of an environment become undefined and arbitrary.

Emotion is somewhat unpredictable and hard to account for. What makes me feel one way today could make me feel diametrically different tomorrow. So if I am not in control or aware of how I am feeling, I risk subjecting the kids to a standard that they can't really account for. A student's talking might not really be that big of a problem, but I may react to it like it is because I'm bringing feelings from other moments and life into the present situation. 

If a teacher is actually going to "speak softly," it seems that they would need three things: to be in control of themselves, grace derived from an understanding of child development, and a rational basis for teacher actions and requests.

That last thing is what it sounds like Locke is getting at in the quote above--that we shouldn't respond, act, or ask something of a child merely because we feel we should in a fit of "caprice, passion, or fancy," but because it is "rational, necessary, and useful." The requests, expectations, and boundaries that meet those qualifications are ones that students can anticipate, that will feel fair, and that we can feel good about holding them to. 

But the problem is that it requires thought. We would have to actually think about what we are asking of them. Thinking takes energy and time. Its work, which is why we have to train ourselves to do it. If we are going to create a clear and safe environment for students, teachers have to actually put thought into it. I'm also realizing that it is habitual thought rather than one-time. 

There are so many things we ask kids to do, expect of them, and keep them from that we don't really have a good reason for. Our actions instead come from what feels, in that moment, to be the right thing.  Why can't they go to bathroom without asking? Why do they need to walk in a straight line? Why do I assign homework? Why do my student's need to practice handwriting? It's not they they are necessarily wrong, but have we even asked those questions?

Asking questions like those can be fighting words in the right teachers lounge. 

There have been a good amount of times where I stop and notice that I don't actually know why I am asking a student to do something. It's humbling to admit that, to back-peddle and confess that you don't know. But it builds trust. It grants you the freedom that comes with being honest. It forces you to think.

And it helps you speak softly. 

Public Shaming, the Classroom, and Locke

This past week I’ve been working off of this idea that Locke suggested in one of his essays. He thinks that the best way to motivate a child, the thing that will build intrinsic motivation, is reputation. This is tempered by his insistence that a child never is shamed or put down in front of others. The only way you talk about a child in public is with praise. This way, he says, you build up their love for having a good reputation and their investment in preserving it. 

The idea of a child being motivated either by achieving recognition or avoiding shame doesn't sit well with me. But neither do stickers. Or color charts. Or anything else that shames kids in front of their peers or rewards them extrinsically. So I’m experimenting with what feels like the lesser of those two evils.

This week, its been my main focus. Not bringing any negative attention to kids in front of the class, only praising them. I save correction or reflection for a private time either after class, on the way to recess, or during some class activity when I can quietly talk to them alone. 

I mean, a few times I caught myself calling out individual’s names. Like when one kid was rolling around on the floor. Or another trying to turn off his friend’s computer. Or another poking a hole in her water bottle cap with a pencil so she could squirt the water into her mouth instead of having to perform the trite task of unscrewing the cap and drinking it normally.

But by and large, its been good, if I can be permitted to use such an absolute. The results have been good. The class feels more peaceful. There are less conflicts, quieter voices, and better ideas coming out of them. Today, the whole class worked hard during centers for an entire hour and a half. Unprecedented. 

I really cant draw a definite correlation. I can say though, that it’s an improvement for my own heart and know it has to be one for theirs. I knew from day one that publicly shaming kids or using the peer group to conform behavior wasn't conducive to emotional safety and therefore wasn't good for learning. But I did anyway. It would just happen. You find yourself negatively interacting with a student in front of the class because it’s expedient and easy. But somewhere, deep down, you feel there has to be a better way. I think there is—not doing it. It's hard, especially if thats what we were given during our time as students.

Public shaming also risks forcing kids to cope. They decide to receive the negative attention and actually start to seek after it. It becomes “their thing.”

Children need to feel emotionally safe if they are going to learn. They can’t feel safe if they are worried about being shamed in front of their friends.