Re-thinking the system

Erin Davenport

 

Ms. Eric”
“No. Ms. Erin. E-ri-nnnnn” I repeat, stressing the tricky last syllable.
My pupil struggles to repeat the sounds, and ultimately fails, my Irish name sounding foreign and forced to his well-intentioned lips. I don’t correct him this time. Punctuation. No, not a period, a question mark. Uncertainty means a question mark.
I plod back to my desk, strategically placed so that while I study my lesson plan I can be sure they all feel watched. A security guard at a museum, I ensure the valuable learning is untouched by distractedness. I hear eight scribbling pencils. Just right. Breathing and sighing, I think about all the times in my life I’ve probably mispronounced names that to me sounded foreign or ethnic. Now, in a classroom in South Charlotte, teaching students who are learning English as a second language, I am the outsider. Their whispered Spanish comments remind me that when left to their own devices, my students will not prefer the English I have grown up with, that slides off of my tongue like honey.
We read a book about a pond. Explaining the picture with my voice: “And here we have the water, there are some weeds”
“I’m allergic to weeds.”
“Oh… very interesting. Is anybody else allergic to anything?” I try as often as I can to make connections between them.
“White people.”
I’m startled for a second. I look at the student who said that, and my eyes are met with a neutral facial expression. I realize the students don’t really know what they’re saying. They don’t even know that I’m white, and are probably just repeating things they heard from their parents. Still, an unintended comment makes me feel out of place. A micro-aggression from a micro-human. I keep reading.
Twelve Thirty. Time to walk the kids to recess. I exit my room with my ducklings behind me to see the watchful eye of my superior. She frowns slightly as my kids walk energetically out to the playground. I feel her disapproval singe my back just as the sunlight catches my front. Watching the kids play outside I consider my own behavioral philosophy as a teacher. The crooked lines in the hallways to me felt like the least of my worries.
I never fully bought into the intensity of behavioral correction that some of my coworkers wanted to enforce. I focused on imposing behavioral standards through a more social contract approach. On the first day of the summer, I asked them what rules they wanted in their classroom, and from that brainstorm our community standards were born. Because they had all devised these rules and agreed to them, I felt completely justified in holding them accountable for them. Social contract theory can, in fact, be applied to first graders. Instead of making normative statements like “it’s bad to hit people,” I tried to focus on helping the kids to understand their actions in the context of their peers. They shouldn’t hit people because when you hit someone you hurt them, and we don’t want to hurt our friends.
In my opinion it’s much more important to teach the kids how to be good citizens as opposed to how to be good students. They will be students for the next ten years, more if they choose, but they will be community members for the rest of their lives. It’s more valuable to learn how to be a good person than to learn how to be a good student. Although there is certainly some intersection there, I also think our behavior standards in education reward certain behaviors more than others. I dislike rules that separate the “good kids” from the “bad kids” based on how quickly their spirits are subdued, and many schools teach kids that to succeed one must be blindly obedient. A cog in the machine. Not every machine is perfect. Not every rule is worth following. I want to teach (and someday raise) kids who aren’t afraid to destroy the machine and build another one. Who remember their duty to each other and build a life of purpose based on that.

 

Erin Davenport ’18 is a Politcal Science major from Marietta, GA. Contact her at erdavenport@davidson.edu

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