If I could go back and undo what I did to a child some years ago I would. This child, who so desperately needed to feel in control of something in their life, came to me and only got more of the same. Less control, more demands, more punishment, rather than a safe haven to feel like they was ok, like they belonged, like they were listened to. They say you learn from your mistakes, and this is one of those kids I have learned from the most.
Peter wasn’t always unhappy, as evidenced by the smiling pictures I saw of him from younger years. By the time he reached the third grade though life had gotten in the way and those smiles were far and few in between. The first time I met him, his mother dragged him into my room late for orientation and started to tell me how I would have a hard time with this one because he was lazy and didn’t care. I don’t think any child’s shoulders have ever slumped more than that. As I nodded through his mother’s complaints, I swore that I would be different, that Peter would start to love school again, that I would help turn this kid around. Looking back, I see now how failed this notion was given the constraints I had placed myself under in my classroom. I was a novice teacher, someone who still believed that I should run my classroom like those who had come before me, like people I had read about in textbooks, like they had taught me in college. I believed that the teacher was the power, the one with all of the knowledge, and the best way for students to learn was to listen to me dole out wisdom. Sure there would be fun, we would have parties and rewards for homework turned in and good behavior. There would also be punishment for those who misbehaved or dared to not hand in their homework. Grades would be motivation and threats would be the norm. Nothing like building a relationship with a child by telling them if they don’t comply they will get an F.
So Peter put his trust in me and at first I got him to smile, to open up a little, to have some success. Days passed and I thought I was helping, I was fixing, I was changing this child’s life. That is, until he didn’t do his homework. I didn’t take the time to find out why, I didn’t ask any questions, but just told him to put his name on the board and to stay in for recess. During recess he worked so slowly, punishing me for calling him out in front of the class, that the next day his homework was still not done. Again, I didn’t ask any questions but just called him out, embarrassing him a little and then told him again that recess would be mine until this math was done. Again slow and painful work meant that he barely finished. What I didn’t know was that our power struggle had just begun and it would last the whole year. Me in the role of enforcer, as supreme teacher that took away instead of gave, that punished rather than asked questions, that wanted more control rather than let him have some. You see, I think all Peter wanted was control. He wanted a space where he could come in and feel that he had a voice, that he mattered, that he belonged. But by removing control from the classroom and even more so for him, I didn’t let him find his voice. I didn’t let him invest himself into the classroom. I didn’t change his mind or change his ways about school, I just let him live up to what his mother had so thoroughly predicted; that he was a no good troublemaker.
Peter made me almost quit teaching because I saw what I had done to him. I saw by the end of fourth grade how my decisions to run my classroom in a traditional sense had taken all of his pleasure out of learning. I knew that summer that I had to change and one of the biggest things to go was the passion for control. Students had to feel they belonged because they had to feel it was their room. They had to have a genuine voice that listened to their needs and let them shape the classroom. They had to have room to grow, to fail, and to embrace each other’s strengths through collaboration and hands on exploration. No more teacher as the sage on the stage, but rather shine the light on the students. Had I given Peter classroom like the one we create now, he would have had a reason to speak up, to get invested. He would have loved the choices, how his voice mattered, and how his creative side could be explored. He would have perhaps taken a small leadership role to show the other kid that he was worthy, to show them that he did belong on the team, he would have cared.
I run my classroom now with the mantra of students first in everything I do. Their voice matters, their choices matter, and their opinions matter. I do not punish and I do not reward. Students work together when we can and always have a choice in how they do things. They sit wherever they want and we try to eliminate homework. If you work hard in our room you do not have to bring the work home. They belong, they own the room, it is theirs and that is what I should have done from the moment I started teaching. I realized it isn’t about me, but about them. I can never undo what I did to Peter and those other students before him but I can make sure I never do it again. I have changed my teaching style because of this child and for that I am grateful, even if he will never know how much he influenced me.