Tuesday, June 15, 2021

"The Secret of Good Teaching is to Control the Environment Instead of the Children"


Growing up, I'd get to see my Grandma Magee a couple of times a year. Sometimes we would go to visit her in Nebraska where she was a house mother at the Omaha Home for Boys. Sometimes she would come to visit us. She had a lot of grandkids spread out all over the country and my brother and I were the youngest. One day, we were shopping at Sears when I was around eight-years-old. As we passed the record department she suddenly asked me if I liked music. It was an odd question. Who didn't like music? So I answered that, I did, so she offered to buy me an album.

Now I owned a few small 45's at the time, kids' records featuring kids' songs from performers like Danny Kaye. This record department, however, was a real, adult record department, selling full-sized LPs. I knew nothing about this sort of music. I imagine grandma had scored major points with my older cousins by offering to buy albums. I imagine they had chosen The Beatles or Aretha Franklin or Ray Charles, but I had no idea who these people were. As a flipped through the racks, however, I finally spied a name I recognized: Johnny Cash. I'm not saying I had any notion of his music, but I was aware of him because I'd seen the commercial on TV for his namesake television show. Of all the albums in all the world, I chose Johnny Cash Live at San Quentin, a prison in Northern California, something I didn't know until I got it home and listened to it.

It was a bit of a shock to me. Up until that recording, I'd pretty much dismissed criminals as criminals. There were good guys and bad guys, but here was this man, Johnny Cash, who seemed to think they were actual human beings deserving of, at least, a good time, even if they were doing hard time. I couldn't believe the song he wrote especially for this concert, San Quentin, in which he, to the the cheers of these imprisoned men, channeled their anger and sadness with lines like, "San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell!" Over the course of the next couple years I listened to that album over and over until I not only knew every lyric, but also all the banter between the songs. I was young enough that I didn't even yet know what the bleeps were there to hide, but there was something essential about his message that has stuck with me until today.

"They say old Johnny Cash works good under pressure . . . But put the screws on me, and I'll screw right out from under you . . . I'm tired of all that (bleep) . . . I'll tell you what, the show is being recorded and televised in England . . . They say, you gotta do this song, you gotta do that song, you know, you gotta stand like this, you gotta act like this, and I just don't get it, man, you know? I'm here, I'm here to do what you want me to do and what I want to do, all right?"

I've only recently realized that this is what I really wanted to be when I grew up. And I've only even more recently come to understand that this is the kind of preschool teacher I've tried to be.


In my conversation with early childhood education advocate, author, and Teacher Tom's Play Summit presenter Lisa Murphy, we talked about the "the adult need to control the children." As Lisa says, "I think if everybody spent a little bit of time reflecting on that, quite honestly, we'd never have to go to any behavior modification workshop or seminar or Zoom meeting ever, ever, ever again . . . You don't need 99 rules if you're not trying to control the children."

I found myself reflecting on old Johnny Cash when Lisa told me about her first teaching job: 

"The first women that I was paired up with was a total control freak. I was new and she told me to get with the program . . . she scared me. She put me in timeout one time and told me I needed to think about what just happened. I got with the program . . . I drifted away from what I knew was best practice, even though I didn't yet have the language to articulate it . . . I had one tool in my metaphorical teacher tool belt, and it was "Kids learn through play." This woman I'm paired up with was like, "We don't got time for that." She threw my tool in the trash . . . So I fell into the abyss with the control-freak, poopy-face, laminated ladies." 

That last bit is the part that would have been covered under a bleep on my Johnny Cash album.

Fortunately, a woman named Cindy Scrimsher because my co-teacher, and she led me back to what I knew first. And no joke, man . . . I didn't know at the time she was hired to teach me . . . She walked in. I'm wrangling up these three-year-olds because nobody's going outside until I get a straight line. I'm going to wait here all day, and you're only wasting your own time. She (Cindy) literally walked up to me and said, "What are you waiting for?" I'm like, "Who are you?" I'm like, "I'm waiting for these kids to line up because nobody's going outside till I get a straight line. I could wait here all day . . . And she said, "What are they? Three?" In my head, I'm like, "Who are you? What are you doing? . . .  (She asked) "Why don't you just open the door and let them go?" I swear to God, I stood there for six minutes trying to figure out a reason why I shouldn't just open the door and let them go."

No one responds well to being told what to do, not prisoners at San Quentin and not children in preschool. We are the adults and they are children, so of course there are times, such as when safety is at stake, when we might have to put our foot down, but straight lines? Crisscross applesauce? Eyes on me? Zip your lips? That "crap" (to once more quote Lisa) isn't about learning, it isn't about play, it is about the adult need to control. When we step back and think about what we are really doing it almost always comes down to the fact that we don't have any reason beyond our urge to control children for not just opening the door and letting them go. 

When we try to put the screws to children, they always seek to screw right out from under us. It's the natural, healthy response to being controlled. It's the urge to be free and we fight against it at the peril of everyone involved. The secret to good teaching, says Lisa, is to control the environment instead of the children. When we do that, we become free as well, free enough to say to these free children, "I'm here, I'm here to do what you want me to do and what I want to do, all right?"

******

To watch my entire interview with Lisa, please join us at Teacher Tom's Play Summit. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Teacher Tom's Play Summit  is a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!"

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