Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Words Are Our Only Weapon

Annie Sullivan is Helen Keller’s teacher in the movie about Helen’s life called The Miracle Worker.  Helen’s parents are thrilled with Annie’s success in getting Helen to comply with basic behavioral expectations, but Annie is not satisfied with that. Appropriate behavior is necessary in order for Annie to make progress with Helen’s education, but it is not nearly enough. She bemoans the fact that she has not been able to make Helen connect sign language to meaning, and states, “Obedience for its own sake is a kind of prison too.”

When I first learned to manage a classroom, it took about four weeks to convince my students that I would fairly and consistently implement consequences for disruptive behavior. All of our personal interactions had been about discipline and behavior. I noticed that my students were compliant, and most were performing successfully with the curriculum, but they acted like they had been beaten into submission. 

Instead of animated, if inappropriate, conversation, my kids were silent. Few smiles. Lots of sighs. Lethargy and oppression was not my goal. I just wanted to be able to manage the group.
I wondered if I could share my motive for strict discipline in a way that could help my kids feel good about their developing self-discipline. I pondered how to present my message. Eventually, I just defaulted to a basic chalk-talk illustration.

I drew a splash-like shape on the chalkboard and wrote the following words inside:  chaos, violence, rebellion, destruction, disarray, selfishness, failure, defeat. On the other side of the board, I drew a balanced rectangle inside of which I listed words like: order, success, caring, productivity, generosity, perseverance, prosperity, self-esteem. I drew a large arrow shape pointing from the disorderly shape filled with undesirable outcomes to the orderly shape filled with desirable outcomes.

I said, “I want to tell you why I have been so strict with you. Anyone who cares about you would never allow you to stay in this condition (indicating the negative words in the first shape). When I first got here, there were students in this class walking around the room the whole hour, melting crayons on the radiator, trashing the room, throwing books and stuff out of the windows, hassling their peers.” They knew very well what their class had been like without discipline. 

I remembered how Annie Sullivan had railed at Captain Keller when he accused her of treating Helen like a child who could see: "I treat her like a seeing child because I want her to see. I expect her to see."

I pointed to the list of positive words in the rectangle. “These are the things I want for you. Success and satisfaction. There’s only one way to get from here (chaos) to here (order), and that’s through this.” I wrote the word “discipline” on the arrow. “Discipline is really love. That’s where I’m coming from. I expect you to act like self-assured, powerful, successful young people now so you will grow into self-assured, powerful, successful adults.”

One little speech will never ensure a perfect classroom environment, but little speeches are needed. Words are really all that teachers have to give. They are our only weapon, tool, or medicine. I tell prospective teachers that they have to develop their capacity to put their ideas and feelings into words. They have to get really proficient at expressing themselves, for their students’ sakes. Young people long to have help from trustworthy adults to interpret their world, their relationships, and their emotions. If the only information that ever comes out of our mouths is about curriculum and grades, we are of little more value to our youth than a machine.

In the school I lead now, the most beloved teachers are those who talk to their students about how to interpret experiences, how to approach challenges, how to feel about events - teachers who laugh with their students, who express their desire to see them succeed, who enjoy being with their kids. All of these teachers are comfortable using words to motivate, encourage, comfort, challenge, and inspire their students.

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