Thursday, December 02, 2021

Teaching Within The Cracks

A reader wrote:

. . . I share the same views as you. However, I struggle actually being able to carry it out fully. How do you give the children all the freedom you do in a center that has "rules" they want all teachers to follow? . . . I would love to get all to truly understand children but I am very outnumbered.

I receive messages like this almost every day. And it's true. We are outnumbered. We are surrounded by a world that neither understands nor respects young children. Oh sure, we find them cute, but even in that, there remains a dismissal of them as fully formed humans. "It is condescending," writes John Holt, "when we respond to qualities that enable us to feel superior to the child," which is how much of society thinks young children, if they think of them at all. And not coincidently, they tend to think the same thing about those of us who have dedicated our lives to caring for them.

But even within our sisterhood, too many of us find it natural to rule. Maybe it's because most of us work in hierarchical systems in which those who have the least to do with the children on a daily basis make the "rules" until classroom teachers find themselves likewise infantilized with very little autonomy, even if they know what is happening to children is wrong. Every study ever done on humans in hierarchy has found that those at the bottom, will, when given the chance, exert command and control when allowed even the slightest opportunity. It is in the nature of hierarchy.

I'm not ascribing evil motives to anyone, but the attitude of noblesse oblige with which so many adults approach children amounts to the same thing. It causes us to believe that we must, in our privilege as adults, wrest their freedom from them and place it in a trust where we manage it for them for a couple decades, holding it over their heads like a sweet carrot, chirping at them that "this is for your own good."

We are truly outnumbered, those of us who understand and respect children enough to entrust them with their own freedom to think, to wonder, to ask and answer their own questions, and discover what it is about the world that makes them come alive.

I've been lucky to have always worked in a cooperative school, a non-hierarchical model, in which the parents and I collaborated in creating our community. Even so, it took many years of trust-building and role modeling to get to get to the point that we could truly step down from our adult pedestals and engage the children as equals for whom we are responsible while not presuming to be their superiors. 

The sad truth is that most teachers are, for today, stuck with systems that simply cannot honor and respect young children. As Ogden Nash wrote, "You can't get there from here." But that doesn't mean that we are helpless. Those of use who "truly understand children" find that our greatest assets are persistence and "teaching within the cracks." I can't tell you how many educators have said those exact words to me -- "teaching within the cracks" -- to describe what they do. Being a great teacher requires, at times, stepping outside the rules because if we are to serve children they need us to be subversive. It's a risk that most of us, at one time or another, must take.

Sadly, we live in a world that neither understands nor respects children (or educators for that matter). Changing that will be the work of generations. Not all of us can work in a cooperative schools, so we each do what we can each day because we love the children in our lives and know that their freedom is theirs. Perhaps one day, we will find the collective courage to stand up together for children, but until then we will teach, subversively, within the cracks.


Just in time for the holidays, even if that gift is for yourself, the full content of Teacher Tom's Play Summit 2021 is once more available for a limited time. This is 24 interviews with early childhood and parenting thought leaders and experts from around the world, including such luminaries as Lisa Murphy, Peter Gray, Maggie Dent, Akilah Richards, and the great children's troubadour Raffi. If you're looking for inspiration, ideas, and a deeper connection with young children, you'll find it here. Professional development certificates are available! Together, as Raffi sings, "Let's turn this world around!" For more information and to purchase your pass, click here.

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