So, I had a chat session last night with one of my online Early Childhood Education classes. This was the second of four I will host this semester. These one-hour chats add a dimension that is typically missing from an online course. They provide an opportunity for students to share ideas and points of view, to network and discuss assignments with one another and me, in real time, using a voice app. It makes an otherwise routine, sit-by-yourself-in-front-of-a-computer class something more dynamic. I’ve also found I gain as much as the students from these sessions.
I can learn about the students’ backgrounds, work experience, and philosophies by listening to their responses and reactions to the topics we discuss. I can also determine areas of learning that need reinforcement in future assignments, enabling me to continually improve my courses and teaching.
I know these chats always seem to deliver some really good “aha” moments, as we share with each other. Last night was no exception.
Prior to the chat, I asked my students to read “The Teacher Effect,” by Deborah Hansen (Education Week). It would be a prelude to our discussion about thinking before speaking to children and how careless remarks can linger with a child forever.
One by one, each of the students shared a time they had been humiliated by a teacher, some as far back as preschool and Kindergarten. We could tell by their voices that these incidents were still as fresh and hurtful as the day they happened.
In her article, Deborah shared her stand-out moment, when her elementary teacher criticized her for not reading aloud well enough in front of the class. From then on, she would always count ahead and go over the paragraph she would be asked to read, in hopes of avoiding some kind of mistake and being called out for it. She went on to say that as a result of her preoccupation, she had no idea what the class was actually reading.
No less than three of my students could identify with how Deborah felt, because they, too, would do the same thing when reading out loud. They also said that it was more important to prepare for their turn to read than listen to what it was they were reading. One student felt that maybe this contributed to the problems she had early on with reading comprehension. Hmmm.
Another student said she had been ridiculed repeatedly in elementary school for her lack of math ability. Once, she said, her teacher asked her to call out her score on a test in front of the other children. “I wanted to cry so badly, but I didn’t. I always knew I was no good at math, but I didn’t want everyone else to know, too. It still hurts.” Hmmm.
Then, it was my turn. I thought back to an event that happened over sixty years ago. But, like my students, it still hurts. I was one of thirty-seven first graders in a Chicago Public Schools classroom. I was only a few months past five years old, being placed in the first grade instead of Kindergarten by the school principal, because “there was room.”
I did spend about a half hour in Kindergarten before this decision was made, and was excited to be there.
It was at a time when Kindergarten was developmentally appropriate- with a playhouse, an indoor sandbox, and freedom to be a child. Sadly though, it was short-lived, when they came to take me to first grade.
My seat was near the back, in one of six rows of bolted-down desks. My feet swung under my seat and I was fascinated by the three inch hole drilled in the top right of the desk top, for no apparent reason.
All of us had been instructed by the teacher to bring an empty cigar box to keep our pencils, crayons, paste, and scissors. I remember going to the drugstore with my mother to get mine and how it smelled of cherries and other mysterious things. Mrs. Ittin was tall, thin, and blonde, and probably my mother’s age.
It was a rainy day when Mrs. Ittin told us we would be making Chinese lanterns. I remember, because all the ceiling globe lights were on. We were all given a piece of red construction paper and told to get out our scissors and paste.
She stood at the front of the room with a piece of that paper and scissors. “You will cut along here and here and here. Then, we will put our lanterns together. Now, get started.” Mrs. Ittin began walking up and down the aisles of desks, watching us as we cut our papers. She came up just behind my desk and stopped there. I couldn’t actually see her, but I knew she was there. I had plenty of practice with scissors at home, and I thought she was admiring my ability to cut such straight lines. I certainly wasn’t prepared for what she did next.
She reached out and grabbed both the paper and scissors out of my hands. She waved the paper over her head and declared loudly, “Look at this stupid child! She has cut the paper on the wrong side! Now, she won’t be able to make a Chinese lantern.”
I remember losing my breath for a moment and feeling betrayed. I loved Mrs. Ittin. She was my first grade teacher, after all. What had just happened? I don’t think I ever told my mother about it, because she never came to school to talk with her, and I surely would have remembered that. I just kept it to myself, in my heart, all these years.
As time goes on, we all may try to explain these incidents away, so we can move on. My math-challenged student said her teacher wanted the children to grade each other’s tests and to call out their scores, because he could record them easier. Most of my other students offered up some type of excuse for their teachers’ bad behaviors, as well. I tried to mollify Mrs. Ittin’s behavior by considering how much stress she was probably experiencing as the sole teacher, all day, in a room with thirty-seven first graders. This rationalization was reinforced when I, as a first-year teacher, fresh out of college, began my career in a Chicago Public Schools classroom that looked much the same, with thirty-two first graders.
But then I realized that none if these were really good excuses for what happened to us. Regardless of how stressed or short on time or what might be going on in life outside the classroom, a teacher never has the right to say something degrading, dehumanizing, or hurtful to a child.
I wonder if Mrs. Ittin ever thought back to that day, when, under the globe lights in her first grade classroom, she said something that would forever make a difference for a little five year old girl.
But, the upside is… we all learned something valuable. I and all my students who commiserated together last evening will never, ever treat a child as we had been treated. We will be ever mindful, so that a stressful day doesn’t lead to words that can never be taken back.
And then there is one more thing I promised myself, thanks to Mrs. Ittin… I will never ask any child to make a Chinese lantern.