Friday, May 07, 2010

Teaching Is Hard

We were playing with our manufacturing patterns yesterday. These are another type of industrial waste we've repurposed for the classroom.

This picture was taken back in October, hence the pumpkins

If I teach according to any pedagogy at all it's that I really, really feel like a failure whenever I find myself bossing kids around. I don't like a classroom full of sit downs and stop doing thats. I want the kids doing things because they made their own decisions rather than because they are forced into it by a bigger, stronger adult. So when one of our older boys started picking up the smaller patterns, which are still quite large and heavy, and drop-tossed them one at a time into a big pile, his cackle and grin betraying his inner knowledge that what he was up to was outside the boundaries, I said, "I'm worried you're going to hurt yourself or someone else when you toss the patterns like that."

He had arrived in class with his mischievous side turned outward. I had already that morning pointed out to him other behaviors that seemed hazardous to his well-being, like trying to climb atop unstable arrangements of the patterns. There weren't many other kids around as he tossed them, so it was really just him I was worried about. I was hoping that my informative statements about my own concerns, as opposed to a directive statement like, "Stop throwing the patterns!" would give him the opportunity to come to his own conclusion and change his behavior according to an internal rather than external motivation. I also know that with most kids, and especially boys, you often have to leave a space in time for your statements to sink in. In the meantime, he picked up another pattern and, sure enough, as if on cue, managed to drop it on his own finger.

I was not the closest adult to him when it happened, Katherine and Lachlan's mom Kimberly was right beside him, so there was really no need for me to make a move in his direction. He looked right at me as his eyes clenched in response to the pain. I simply said, "I was worried that would happen." And as Kimberly gathered him onto her lap, checking his finger for blood or other signs of greater injury, his wail of pain filled the room. Of course this drew kids into the area. I looked at the other children and said, "People often get hurt when they throw blocks."

I could have prevented that injury. I saw it coming in the abstract, if not in its specifics. And believe me, it has been gnawing at me for the past 24 hours that I didn't get up off my butt, walk over to him and put an end to the behavior that ended in a smashed finger. I'm bigger, stronger and could have very easily put a hand on the pattern and prevented him from tossing it. And I'm worried that my response appeared cold and uncaring, although Kimberly's was not. The saving grace, to me, was that it didn't turn out to be anything serious. He sat on Kimberly's lap until his sobbing subsided, then slowly got back into the action. And while the children still played rather wildly with the manufacturing patterns, no one else tried throwing them.

I do care deeply about what happened. I'm trying to persuade myself this morning, that as painful as it was for him, the incident may well have prevented other children from getting hurt who may have otherwise joined in his pattern throwing game. I'm trying to tell myself that his moment of pain may be just the lesson he needed to prevent a future, even worse, injury. I'm trying to tell myself that the joyful, productive play that took place in that area during the rest of the morning was seasoned by a little caution wrought by his injury. All of these are rationale that come directly from my own pedagogy about the importance of incorporating risk and allowing children to learn through real world experience.

I've written a lot lately about the importance of providing a learning environment that is not sanitized and devoid of "pokey bits," most recently in this post (which includes links to other writing on the topic). It's actually a fairly easy thing to write about in theory, but it's a very hard thing to execute in the real world.

His pain was real. I hope it leads to real learning. My feelings are real and pedagogy provides but cold comfort. 

Teaching is hard.

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Eternal Lizdom said...

Parenting is hard, too. I often have moments that I turn into teachable moments. I don't like to direct my kids all the time- even though it often feels easier. In reality, it isn't because it just leads to frustration and obstinence and a fight. I save the interfering for when it really is more necessary.

For me, it boils down to what I consider one of the most important things I can teach my kids. Self-responsibility. Recognizing that you make choices and you take consequences- good and bad- for those choices. You pointed out to him what might happen and he chose to continue, even with straightforward knowledge.

Sherry and Donna said...

Gosh Tom what's all this about? You did everything right. Besides what ever happened to - the kids will come home from preschool battered and bruised and covered in blood and snott occasionally attitude?
Hmmm, I think somebody needs a hug!
Cheer up buddy you'll get over it.

Donna :) :)

Hippy Goodwife said...

If the boy with the smashed finger were my wild boy, I would still think that you did exactly the right thing. There was a loving lap to go to for comfort and you did not point him out to the other kids and loudly proclaim "I told you so".

Sarah said...

I once sat down to a meal with a Grandmother and her two grand children. The Grandmonther spent the entire meal tell the children, do this, don't do that. They never had a chance to think or initiate any choices. Then as the story unfolded it turned out that her children, the parents of these two grandkids were unable to care for these two because the parents were completely out of control personally, and had no idea how to navigate their own lives. They had made terrible decisions ranging from prostitution to child endangerment.
So keep giving them choices and help them learn to make their own decisions their lives depend on it.

Noah said...

wow - I think you did the constructive thing too, Tom, all the way. Sarah's story really expands on the theme...
AND I understand that it's sometimes hard to hold back, give kids the space they need to make their own choices...
Always learning with you, Tom - thanks.

L-L-L-Leslie said...

This is a great story! I'm thinking of it this way. The next time he is making decisions that he knows are a little risky, he can independently relate back to this experience and maybe make better choices. No adult/teacher needed.

You saw a teachable moment and you took it. Kudos to you!

Alissa said...

You sound like you have a lot of patience, it takes some strong willpower to get yourself in the headset of teaching them to correct their own mistakes, rather than the natural instinct of telling them not to do something.
PS: I've just started my own teaching blog and I've been looking through your blog, VERY INSPIRING!!!! Can't wait to read more, Alissa

chaosftw said...

I (briefly) sent my little girl to a play/preschool where the kids were told 'do this/don't do that' to the point that even if a child needed to go to the bathroom, they needed to POLITELY ask permission (who remembers to say please while squeezing their legs together and hopping around?), receive it, and then be escorted around the corner. to the only other room, to go. The kids weren't even trusted enough to walk down a hallway by themselves, and heaven forbid they use scissors. During craft time, they were told how to color, how to paste, where to paste. My daughter, who'd never seen a turkey in her life, came home with a beautiful piece of perfectly cut and pasted craft paper in the shape of a turkey, it even had a face drawn on, and the eyes weren't on it's back, or chin either. Also my daughter, who only sits still for stories, and even then starts out upright, but then is laying down, and then upside down, and then kicking her feet...had to sit still - or else - for circle time, and story time, and craft time (weren't allowed to change stations, and couldn't be at the same station as another kid), and final circle time (all of that in 2 hours).

I realize not all schools would be as bad as that, but many around here come close.

Seems to me the service you did to that boy by allowing him to move, to play, to explore, and to learn the lesson by getting hurt is much better than the service done to my daughter who was kept safe.

That boy may have been hurt, but he was respected, and he learned a lesson that will stick far more then mere words ever would.

Keep up the good work.

Deb said...

I agree, it's so hard. Before children I was a science teacher, so my potential accidents included flame and acid and scalpels and I know I'm a bit paranoid as a result.

Interestingly it's not the safety ones that have me stumped at the moment, it's behaviour. After 2 years of being pushed around, the little one is pushing and hitting back. I'm constantly torn between her learning that isn't the way to deal with situations and the older one learning that she has to ask people to play, not just tell them what to do!

Deborah (Teach Preschool) said...

Hi Tom,
Thank you for sharing such a heartfelt post. I have thought of a million responses but I know that you have already considered this from every perspective and every angle which is what makes you the incredible teacher I have come to appreciate, value and know.

A Magical Childhood said...

You're such a good man, Teacher Tom. Your posts always make me smile because of the way you care about children. I love that you let kids learn themselves (when it's reasonable) but even more I love that you really feel for them and are so empathetic.

I absolutely think you did the right thing. Two of my boys are the types to injure themselves with crazy ideas on a minute-by-minute basis. They don't always come with much of a built in sanity checker so it's good to have one nearby to tell them to think first, and an occasional smashed finger to make it real.

Betsy said...

Hi Tom,
Yesterday I had a rocking boat-full of 5-year-old boys. I reminded them once about keeping their hands on the crossbar, but lo and behold one of them managed to get a finger pinched under the boat as it rocked to and fro. I have to admit I wasn't watching them very closely (too busy supervising the use of a hammer and chisel to pry open a coconut one of my young friends brought back from Key West!). I was drawn back to the boat by the wails from this little fellow as he watched the blood start to pool under his fingernail--ouch! I keep thinking that had I been paying closer attention, I might have prevented the injury. Then again, I doubt this little guy will ever put his fingers anywhere near the rocking part of the boat again.

Scott said...

A warning. A acknowledgement of the consequence. A comforting place to calm down. I think he had all he needed in this experience - and learning, too.

I appreciate your transparency and your reflection on the situation. It makes us all more purposeful, stronger teachers.

kiri8 said...

I think you did the right thing. I find this (natural consequences) easier to do with my sons than with my students, for some reason.

Carrie B said...

But if you were the closest adult, I'm sure it would have been your lap and comfort. Kudos to you on a job and blog well done.

nicole said...

Hi Teacher Tom,
I just wanted to thank you for this post (and this blog). I work for a corporate preschool and I'm constantly torn between following the over-the-top safety rules and regulations and providing learning opportunities I know they will benefit from that may have "pokey bits" ~as you put it so well! It makes it that much harder that any small scrape or bump must be documented and incentives are given for teachers who have low numbers of "incidents." It was great to hear that you struggle with knowing what's best for the kids sometimes, too. I admire your work so much! It has really changed my approach to learning with my kids, "classroom management", and "discipline". Now I just stop and think: WWTTD? (What Would Teacher Tom Do?) In such a short time, this mentality has shifted how I interact with my students and has made our classroom climate much more positive and warm. Thank you for helping me build a teaching approach I can feel good about at the end of the day and thank you for all that you do for your students.
Much respect,

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