Tuesday, March 29, 2022

"I Guess They Taught Themselves"

Some time ago, we took the children on a field trip to the local post office. We were a group of some 20 children and eight adults. The woman giving us our tour introduced herself as Ms. Lui, before insisting that the children get in a line. It was an inauspicious start. The kids had no idea what to do. Even we adults were at a loss. Queueing up isn't part of what we did at Woodland Park.

I could see Ms. Lui was irritated with us. She tried to remain cheerful, but it was through gritted teeth. When I explained that we didn't know how to line up, I reckon she thought me the worst teacher in the world.

As a play-based educator, I strive, against a lifetime of training to the contrary, to resist the temptation to exert power over the children which is what we do when we insist on things like marching in lines or sitting in straight rows. It's what we do when we insist on zippered lips, dress codes, or asking permission to use the toilet. School is notoriously a place of rules and regulations, of teachers in the role of drill sergeant, or, if I'm being honest, prison guard.

I am responsible for the children's safety and general well-being, of course, and in that capacity there may be times when I cannot allow a child to do certain things, like jumping off the roof of a three story building, but by default, any power that comes my way by virtue of my titles of "teacher" or "adult" is to be returned to the children in the form of empowerment.

I can make an argument for this position from moral grounds, but my genuine motivation is simply to be a good teacher. I'm familiar with the research on the effects of people possessing more power than others and I've concluded that when I exert power over children, especially the capricious and arbitrary kind of power exerted in most classroom, I'm doing direct harm to the children's educational prospects.

As Rutger Bregman writes in his book Humankind: "One of the effects of power, myriad studies show, is that it makes you see others in a negative light. If you're powerful you're more likely to think most people are lazy and unreliable. That they need to be supervised and monitored, managed and regulated, censored and told what to do. And because power makes you feel superior to other people, you'll believe all this monitoring should be entrusted to you . . . Tragically, not having power has exactly the opposite effect. Psychological research shows the people who feel powerless also feel far less confident. They're hesitant to voice an opinion. In groups, they make themselves seem smaller, and they under-estimate their own intelligence."

That adults should exert power over children is so ingrained in us that many cannot imagine it any other way, but by doing so we make the children smaller, we make them feel ignorant, and we undermine their confidence. 

We've all experienced educators who are convinced that the children are lazy, that they can't be trusted, that they must be constantly monitored and managed. It's a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. 

I asked Ms. Lui if we could just promise to stick together as a group. She didn't think that would work at all. She wanted us, on the spot, while on a field trip to a place of great excitement, to instruct them on how lines worked. Fortunately, there was a painted line one the floor so we asked the kids to stand on the line. Most of them tried it out for a moment or two, but as empowered children they were far more attuned to their curiosity than standing on a line. Some wandered off. Some pointed and asked questions. Others negotiated with their friends over their exact position on the line. After several minutes of this cat herding project, I turned to Ms. Lui and said, "This is the best we can do. Do you really need us to march in a line?"

It was a simple question, but it stumped her. After muttering something about "keeping order" she shrugged, adding, "Can you at least tell them not to touch anything?"

That I could do, although even then, I returned the power to these empowered children: "There's a lot of stuff around here that could hurt you. Ms. Lui wants you to ask her before touching anything." I did not command them, but rather gave them information.

She shook her head as she led the way. At every point-of-interest, from the sorting machines to the post office boxes, the children asked, "Can I touch this?" or "What would happen if I touched that?" At first her tone was slightly scolding, but gradually she began to relax, even seeming to take pleasure in the children's obvious curiosity, their confidence, and their willingness to voice their ideas and opinions.

In preparation for this visit, we had written letters addressed to ourselves. Ms. Lui showed us the outgoing mail slot and the children, unprompted, lined up, one-behind-another, to deposit their letters. She was by now in fine spirits. I joked, "See? We can line up."

She lowered her eyebrows at me, "I thought you said they didn't know how to line up."

I replied, "I didn't think they did. Maybe they just didn't need to know it until now."

This time when she shook her head it was with a sense of wonder, "I guess they taught themselves."


If you're interested in learning about creating a learning village that parents will wholeheartedly support, I've developed this 6-part course called The Empowered Educator: Partnering With Parents. As preschool educators, we don't just educate children, but their families as well. For the past 20 years, I've been working in a place that puts the tri-cornered relationship of child-parent-educator at the center, and over that time I've learned a great deal about how to work with families to create the kind of village every child needs and deserves. How would it be to have parents show up as allies? Click this link to register and to learn more. Discounts are available for groups. Registration for this cohort closes on March 30, so act fast!

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