Monday, July 13, 2015

Being A "Strict" Teacher



While the rest of the kids crowded around the workbench, awaiting their turn at power drill painting, J was working on his own independent project. Finding our crate of wood scraps, he was purposefully arranging pieces on the ground.


Summer at Woodland Park is a time when children come together for only two or three weeks at a time, rather than for the nine month long haul of the regular school year. There are many of our "regular" students enrolled for a session or two, but these rosters are mostly comprised of girls and boys who have never been together before, or at least not since last summer. As a school that sets community building at the center of it's curriculum, this is a fascinating time for me. It's like the first week of school every week: the learning curve is steep, and just as we're beginning to understand the most clearly defined contours of who we are, together, in this place, with this teacher, it's time to say goodbye. It's a bit like having a look at a "control group" in the experiment of where I am as a teacher and where our school is as a place to build community. 


Early this summer, a boy and his mom who have been with us for the past three years brought a lunch to share with me after the others had left to commemorate our last day together. We sat down at our art tables, along with the big sister and her friend. The older girls started talking about their elementary school teachers, describing some of them as "strict." Joking, I said, "I'm the most strict teacher." The children got the joke, saying, "You're not strict at all," but mom corrected them: "Teacher Tom is strict about some things. He's strict about treating each other well. He's strict about not hitting or hurting people or taking things or being mean . . . Well, maybe "strict" isn't the right word. Strict in the gentlest possible way."


At first I wanted to object, but upon a moment's reflection, had to concede her point. It's true that the things I'm most "strict" about are those foundational principles of community that always emerge from the agreements (the rules) the children make with one another. For better or worse, I am the executive charged with carrying out the legislative intentions of the children and I do take that responsibility seriously. So in that sense, I suppose it's fair to say I'm strict.

But that's how it works during the regular school year, when we have the time to discuss and wrangle; when we have the luxury of agreeing and disagreeing, of failing and succeeding, of trying out this and trying out that. During the summer, however, we have no choice but to take it one day at time.


Several years ago, a couple boys, one with a year of experience at Woodland Park under his belt, Charlie, was eating snack with Nathan, a summer-only kid. Nathan suggested that once they were finished, they should race around the classroom, to which Charlie replied, "We can't. It's against the rules. No running inside." Nathan asked, "What happens if we break the rules?" After taking a moment to digest this idea, Charlie shrugged, "We don't break the rules."

I reckon I take Charlie's lead when it comes to summer: I tend to assume that the agreements from the most recently completed school year are still in force, even if we don't actually talk about "rules."


J was working on his project methodically, moving back and forth between his construction zone and the crate of wood scraps where he carefully selected pieces of a certain shape and size. While his back was turned, a younger boy, L, spotted the creation. While J was bent over the wood crate, L helped himself to one of J's lengths of wood, then kicked at the construction, disheveling it. When J returned, he immediately noticed the alterations. He stood for a moment as if confused, looking from the ground to L, who still held the piece of wood he'd removed.

I'd been standing aloof, observing from a few feet away. J turned to me, "Teacher Tom, that boy is breaking my bridge."

I answered, "That's L. He probably doesn't know you're building a bridge."

"I don't want him to break my bridge."

"He probably doesn't know that either. Maybe you should tell him that."


J paused for a moment and I wondered if he was feeling that I'd abandoned him, even if it was to his own devices, but he apparently decided to give it a try. By now L had removed several more pieces of wood from the bridge. J said, "L, I'm building a bridge. I want you to stop breaking it."

L stopped in his tracks, looking from J to the wood on the ground. J said, "You're breaking my bridge."

L replaced the wood, then J dropped to the ground to arrange it more perfectly. L toddled away, returning moments later with a new piece of wood, not exactly the shape and size with which J had been working, but close enough, and lay it down in a way that more or less matched the pattern with which J had been working. 


J stared at L long and hard. When L returned with another piece of wood J apparently decided to share his project, showing him where to place it. When L then proceeded to awkwardly cross the bridge, J said to L, "It's our bridge."

These are the baby steps of community building, using one another's names, telling one another what we want, sharing resources that are always in some way limited, and undertaking projects that we come to call "ours." Throughout the entire interaction, I knew that if push came to shove, I'd have "strictly enforced" at least the spirit of the regular school year rule that you can't knock down other people's buildings. But before getting there I found myself attempting to adhere to a higher rule of giving the children the time and space to figure it out on their own without the interference of adults or rules they'd not had a voice in creating, and this time they did. 


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1 comment:

John S Green said...

Great! The world is our bridge for all.

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