This week’s practicum was a humbling experience.
During the transition from reading to What I Need (WIN) time, Mrs. Bright, my cooperating teacher, gave the class several options. They could play math games or practice typing or read a book on bones, the current science topic. Most of the kids transitioned easily, but not Carter. He sat, sullen, showing no sign of having heard the instructions.
I stood next to his desk. “What are you going to do today, Carter?”
“Nothing,” he mumbled.
“Well,” I said, “that’s not an option. Why don’t you read a bone book?”
Carter sat and I stood. We were both silent. I planted my feet, making it clear I was not going away. Finally, he dragged himself out of his chair and towards the book baskets.
Success, I thought.
Then Mrs. Bright noticed Carter’s sulk. She gave me a look: “What’s up with him?” I shrugged. She approached Carter’s desk, squatting down so they were face to face.
“What’s going on with you today?” I heard her ask. “How can I help you?”
I did a lap around the room, peering over the shoulders of other students. When I next noticed Carter, he had moved to a bean bag chair and was reading his choice book, looking much happier.
Suddenly, our successful interaction didn’t seem like such a success.
My education professor always says that good classroom management is based on treating kids like people. When she says it, it sounds commonsense. Obviously giving students autonomy and respect is a best practice. Yet reflecting on my own life as a student, I realize how seldom this occurred. Ditto for all the summers I spent as a camp counselor. “That’s not an option” is a phrase I picked up from a camp director. People say that we teach how we are taught, and I have had few models for treating kids as people.
The way I approached Carter mirrors how I was approached as a student, but it was not good teaching. I sent the message that he owed me work based on my position as an adult and authority figure. I signaled that I did not care what was preventing him from working, only that he was not. In contrast, Mrs. Bright’s version of this conversation drew on the relationship between teacher and student to motivate Carter’s cooperation. Carter was given space to be a person; he was allowed to have a bad day. Though he did not end up working on one of the options listed for WIN time, he did end up working. He was more productive than if he faked reading a bone book to appease me. What’s more, he learned that in Mrs. Bright’s classroom, his circumstances matter, and his teacher will support him.
Until observing in Mrs. Bright’s room, I didn’t have a model of what it looks like to treat kids like people. Now I do, and I see how far I am from doing so. Going forward, this will be a focus for me. I think it’s so important, because elementary teaching is not only about teaching students to read and write, it is also about teaching kids how to be move through the world. I hope my future classroom, like Mrs. Bright’s, is a space where kids have room to practice being students and people.