In Response To: Playing School

Dining choices certainly change after having a child, not because you become intolerant to certain foods, but rather because some diners become intolerant to you, you breeder you. Sometimes, you sacrifice menu options and personal preference for that kid-friendly locale, a place you can bring your child without people looking at you like you’re a leper – without feeling as though you have interrupted people who are like you used to be during their precious meal hour.

Now that Ezra is four, it’s a little easier to have a range in our dining choices, but we still tend to choose places that he is familiar with. There is an added bonus for any location that has something geared towards entertaining a child. For example, one restaurant we go to has a hollowed-out school bus for children to climb aboard. Tonight we went to what Ezra calls the “turtle place,” aptly named because of the two bronze statues that sit on an approximate 10 x 5 piece of turf, appealing to every child whose parents drag them there to eat.

Either my wife or I order the food while whoever is not doing that gets to be on turtle duty. She lucked out today, because there was a group of small children entertaining each other at the designated reptiiian entertainment area.

After ordering food, I found Louanne sitting on a bench, watching fondly over a group of four children, who I assumed came together, plus my son. One girl, probably about seven, read from a book, her audience lovingly reposed at her feet. I had walked in on story time.

Very quickly, I noted that they were playing school. Since the other children knew each other, they obediently followed the directions of the eldest child, the reader. Ezra, usually quick to join in, approached hesitantly, evaluating the circumstance before committing.

Being a teacher, there’s always entertaining in seeing a child’s notions of how school, in their mind, really is, and what he or she picks up and tries on when playing the role of a teacher. This little girl was remarkably authoritative, tiptoeing the line of bossiness. She had all of the students sitting on the “carpet,” in assigned order, cross-legged and enthralled by her story. My son however, did not want to be part of her charming flock of sheep. He, on the contrary rose to his feet, sat on the retaining wall beside the “teacher,” and claimed aloud for all to hear, “I am the assistant.” Her face contorted, caught off-guard by the brazenness of her student. Admittedly, I’ve made this face too, when found ill-equipped for a response to a particular behavior. Not knowing what to do, the teacher allowed him to sit beside her, too taken aback to correct his improper, petulant behavior.

Eventually, she began to question his disobedience. “What do you think you’re doing?” she quipped. Ezra, certain of his choice, looked her straight in the eye and reminded, “I’m your assistant.”

She didn’t like the challenge to her leadership. “Well,” she said, “If you cannot follow directions, you are going to be on red!” My son’s preschool doesn’t do the red or yellow or green behavior-card thing that even I did when I was in elementary school, yet he knew what she meant. Dejected, he stood from the wall, approaching my wife and me, and stated, “I am no longer playing school. I don’t like to play her way. I’m going to jump off the turtle.”

Now I know the last line seems a bit like toddler suicide, but said turtle is actually very low to the ground and perfectly safe, from a jumping-off standpoint.

From this less-than-10-minute exchange, I ascertained two important things: one, my son doesn’t take even pretend crap from anyone, and two, what small children glean from school mimics authoritarian behaviors, and unfocused on the content taught. Granted, this little girl could not have been older than first grade, but I find it comedic that her notion of being a teacher was simply classroom management (and story time).

Does this sound like new teacher programs, or what?

When I became an educator, the part I felt least excited about was the disciplinary stuff. It was unnatural for me. I was 21, fairly fresh out of college, and suddenly responsible for other people’s children. As the youngest of two, and on the younger end of the parade of cousins, I never really felt authoritarian or accountable for anyone younger than myself.

The only Mr. Ferro I had ever considered was my father.

Classroom management is definitely a necessary skill to possess when being a teacher. In fact, I think it is so emphasized in new teacher programs that we don’t often consider the content the newbies are asked to teach, but rather whether or not children can be managed. Currently, I have a student teacher, and like most fresh to the classroom, she struggles with managing her classroom. She’s incredibly kind, but amongst an abundance of middle schoolers, kind doesn’t always work independently of corresponding traits. Remembering hearing one senior teacher say, “I don’t smile until Christmas,” I’ve never really bought into that adage, but I can say is as I become more of a veteran teacher, valuing sternness with my students improved my practice. Fair, yes, and not a yeller, I do make myself very clear, and students understand what is expected. Mutual respect is obligatory, and even though my students are coming-of-age and challenging, they deserve my respect just as much as I expect it from them.

The little girl at the restaurant this afternoon certainly understood the underlying concept of classroom management: there can be no story time if the natives are restless. Where I think she failed, however, is she didn’t have buy-in from her “students.” What did she have to offer them besides reading a book? Her primary method of managing poor behavior was to threaten with negative consequences. So much for Hammond’s research on culturally responsive teaching and the brain. My child saw through the thin veil of authoritarianism, and quickly redirected, returning to doing things that he preferred rather than follow along with someone else’s expectations.

While I may be critical of a small child emulating what she sees in practice, I question our own management techniques. How often do we go through the motions of teachers, playing a role rather than really focusing on the humanity behind the tough work? How frequently do we assign tasks that we haven’t taught students to fully be able to do independently, and then blame them for misbehaving? These questions are at the forefront of my planning and my pedagogy, but as I work with new teachers, I see the failure of teaching programs that value classroom management over understanding how to deliver a well developed curriculum.

Of course, it is a balance, and we walk the fine line between successfully managing, as in my case, 36 moving parts, and developing engaging and rigorous curriculum daily. But, I do hope the little girl at the restaurant soon realizes that a meritocracy only works when students are engaged and respect the leader. If that isn’t the foundation of every classroom, then we as teachers fail, and there certainly will be no story time. Children will jump from turtles everywhere.

One thought on “In Response To: Playing School

  1. Your story is a fun balance between the “teacher” at the restaurant and reflecting on you as a teacher and on how we prepare teachers. After years of being a reading specialist, I returned to being a classroom teacher. I knew my literacy content SO well. However, without a managed classroom and without gaining trust and respect by building relationships, my students weren’t going to learn any of the content I knew so well from me. As you say, it is a balance. This job called teaching is hard. But so is being a parent. And we do both to help the next group of small humans come along.

    Congrats to writing daily in the March Challenge! Keep Writing!!


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