Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Caring ally or judge in-waiting

I consider the relationships I have with my students and my daughter as being the most important part of being a teacher and a father.

Teachers who believe that their primary role is to dispense the curriculum content into their students' heads regardless of whether the students like the content or like the teacher are missing the point. Good teaching and good learning are inseperable from good relationships.

When teachers and parents choose to use rewards and punishments to manipulate children, we are playing a kind of Russian roullette - meaning, at some point, we will have to make good on our promise to actually use the reward or punishment.

When we trigger the reward or the punishment, it is awfully hard for our students or our children to see us as a caring ally who is on their team - rather, it is more likely that they will start to rationalize the relationship as 'us' and 'them'. They see us as a judge in-waiting who holds the carrot in one hand and the stick in the other.

If you want to determine if you have an 'us' versus 'them' relationship with kids, take the pronoun test. Listen to your kids to find out which pronouns they use to describe your relationship. Do your students describe the classroom as a 'we' or do the students see you as a 'them'? This kind of inclusive or exclusive language indicates more than just symantics.

In his book Unconditional Parenting, Alfie Kohn offers this:

Those giants who hold me and rock me and feed me and kiss away my tears sometimes go out of their way to take away things I like, or make me feel unworthy, or hit me on the backside (even though they keep telling me I'm always supposed to "use my words"). They tell me they're acting this way because of something or other that I did, but all I know is now I'm not sure I can trust them or feel completely safe with them. I'd be pretty stupid to admit to them that I'm angry, or that I did something bad, because I've learned that I might be give a time-out or talked to in a voice that has all the loved drained out of it or even smacked. I'd better keep my distance.

That last sentence scares the hell out of me. I could not think of a greater indictment of a parent or teacher than if the chlild actually feels like they have to keep their distance because the parent or teacher encouraged them to do so. This is exactly what rewards and punishment do.

It would break my heart to know that I was responsible for creating a wedge between my students and me. And as bad as that may be, words couldn't even begin to describe how horrible I would feel if I did the same with my daughter.

If we really care about being a caring ally that is there for our children, that is there to work with our children, we have to purge our teaching and parenting tool-boxes of our rewards and punishments and interact with our children unconditionally.

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