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A Tale of Two Teachers
The power teachers wield....
This is @edpsychprof's weekly newsletter for those interested in transforming schools to become places where children (and adults) can thrive.
Trigger warning: Mistreatment of children is discussed.
It wasn't until I had Mrs. Trunchbull* as my 2nd grade teacher that I realized how awful schools could be. Before then, I was eager to go to school, to meet new kids, learn impossible, wonderful things.
Mrs. Trunchbull was a large, imposing woman who insisted on perfect order in her class. We couldn't chew gum, or make noise, or argue with her about anything. We had to sit perfectly still at our desks, doing assigned work, without any shenanigans. When Billy was caught chewing gum, Mrs. Trunchbull ordered him to stand with his nose pressing the sticky wad into the wall. For half an hour he stood there, while we watched in fear and awe of her power, thanking God it wasn’t us up there.
Still, the boys in the class didn’t seem to learn. One day early in the year, Max did something that caught Mrs. Trunchbull’s attention. Little escaped her roving eyes. Max’s punishment was to sit in the front of the room wearing a dunce cap for the rest of the day. We hid our eyes from staring so he could keep his dignity.
Soon, Jerry decided to test the silence mandate. He didn’t talk; instead, he defied Trunchbull by making fart noises, wedging his hand in his armpit and repeatedly slapping his arm and up and down. It worked—I watched in wonder and a kind of envy as the juicy noises emerged from his armpit. Mrs. Trunchbull caught him, of course. In a sickly sweet voice, she told him that he was very amusing and should continue to make these noises. And every time he stopped, she insisted he continue. Outrage stirred in my heart as Jerry’s face contorted with tears and pain. When she finally allowed him to stop, his armpit was red, chapped, and sore.
A few days later, it was James’ turn. He disturbed the silence by making popping noises with his finger, flicking the inside of cheek outward. Mrs. Trunchbull insisted he continue entertaining us, and she made him flick his cheek over and over, until his mouth bled.**
I marveled at these boys’ courage, yet I could not bear to endure their fate. So I focused very, very hard on doing my worksheets without any errant movement or sound.
It was the mid-70s, and though we were only seven years old, we knew this was wrong. Times were different though. Our parents didn't believe us and told us to stop complaining and pay better attention in class.
I suspect my hatred of schooling began that year. I could sense the injustice of it all, and how little control I had to change anything. Fortunately, teachers like Mrs. Trunchbull are an aberration. I had some wonderful K12 teachers too. In particular, I had Mrs. Kravitz the following year in 3rd grade, and that year in her classroom healed much of the damage done the previous year.
Mrs. Kravitz was the polar opposite of Mrs. Trunchbull, and under her gentle, kind presence, we all flourished. Her class was in the innovative wing of the school, the “roundhouse,” where the 60s reforms had filtered down to the idea of teaching in open classrooms. All the rooms in this area of the school were arranged around the perimeter of a circle. The only solid walls were on the outside edge of the circle, the foundation of the building. Each room had a door leading outside, so you could go and come easily, making the outdoors part of our classroom. The best part of all was the center of the room--there were small, kid-sized bookshelves angled in such a way to form cozy nooks for reading. What I remember most was the large, clawfooted ceramic bathtub in the center of the circle with pillows inside. Since our classrooms were open, there were no doors, just modular walls separating each room from the other. The rooms all opened to the circle center, so you could look around and see all the activity going on in each classroom.
Mrs. Kravitz let us move about that circle freely. I used to sit and read in the big bathtub as often as I could, my imagination soaring. I never minded coming back to class though--there was always something wonderful going on. For a while we hatched baby chicks using an incubator. We kept journals and noted the changes in the eggs over time, observing the chicks growing inside. Students had different classroom jobs, and attending to the incubator was a coveted position. Once we met Mrs. Kravitz's husband who was a scuba diver with Jacques Cousteau. We watched films of them diving and exploring the ocean, then we got to try out a scuba mask and oxygen tank (with Mrs. Kravitz carefully wiping the mouthpiece with alcohol between students). After lunch and recess, when we were a bit sleepy, she'd gather us on a colorful rug in the back of the room and read to us fantastical stories--Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, then the Great Glass Elevator, and James and the Giant Peach. We'd beg her to not stop reading--how we loved to get quiet and listen as she painted a picture of fantastic worlds to us. She didn’t need to threaten us to be quiet. We wanted to hear the story. I don’t remember much of the details of what I learned in her class, but I do remember that I learned that the world is big and wonderful, and that there was so many amazing things to learn.
Mrs. Kravitz’s kindness and approach to teaching has remained with me. Many, many years later when I had my own classroom, I made sure to read aloud to my students, even my 8th graders.
So even though Mrs. Trunchbull was an aberration, is Mrs. Kravitz one too nowadays? Are teachers allowed to take the time to explore ideas with their students? To invite curiosity? To let whole days go by filled with books and reading and wondering? If not, I’m not blaming the teachers. The whole school system is designed for control and uniformity. Teachers, to keep their jobs, often must learn to quell their creative ideas in order to “cover the curriculum,” just like I learned to be still to not get into trouble. And yet….are there stories of teachers like Mrs. Kravitz out there? Public schools like the one with the clawfooted bathtub in the center? Are schools still places of power over children, with kids given little if any voice in their education? Or are there examples of public schools defying the over-standardization of instruction? If so, would you let me know? I want to hear your stories too.
*Teacher names are pseudonyms.
**I confirmed the accuracy of these stories with my sister who also had both teachers in elementary school.
I would love to hear your thoughts--they help clarify my own thinking and contribute to the larger discussion on this topic. Plus, your responses help create community around this idea of school transformation. Who knows what good we can do together?
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