Yesterday, my 8 year-old grandson said, seemingly out of nowhere, “Rules are made to be broken, laws are made to be followed.” I’m not sure all rules are made to be broken or that all laws must be followed, but there are surely rules (and laws) that shouldn’t exist.
You may have read the story and seen the video of a principal refusing to hand a diploma to a graduating senior at the commencement ceremony of Philadelphia High School for Girls. The young woman, Hafsah Abdur-Rahman, had the temerity to do a few seconds of “The Griddy Dance” while crossing the stage. The school district belatedly denounced the idiocy, but it was too little too late for the humiliated graduate.
One might wonder how such a person became principal of a school – or perhaps not. Such stories are not rare, especially in tough-love charter schools, where Cruella de Vil might be anointed teacher-of-the-year.
During my head of school years, when I waxed enthusiastically about progressive education to prospective parents, I was often asked about teachers’ qualifications. I replied, “There are five primary requirements: first, they must love children; second, they must love children; third, they must love children; fourth, they must embrace progressive philosophy, which is another phrase meaning ‘love children;’ and fifth, they must have passion about life, exhibited by other things they do or have done.
This elicited chuckles, but I insisted that I was entirely serious, or at least as serious as I’m predisposed to be. I then went on to observe how often I, and perhaps they, encountered teachers or school leaders who did not appear to like children very much at all. How and why such people entered the profession was – and is – beyond my ken. I suppose a certain variant of sadism might account for it. I occasionally visited other schools and was genuinely startled to see how many of my counterparts seemed to know or have relationships with few, if any, actual children. So many other jobs they could have done! I mildly enjoyed some parts of my work, and barely tolerated others, but I spent as much time in the company of children as continued employment would allow. Little ones and big ones alike.
Inordinate attention is paid to degrees earned, certification and prior experience. These things, to me, can be somewhat incidental or irrelevant. They might even be disqualifying, if the candidate seems to think they are very, very important. Even in cases where these criteria are valuable assets, they are not useful if criteria 1-5 are not met.
With all of the nonsense about “Science of Reading” or the national panic over National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, actual children are reduced to data points in arcane analyses that almost always drive bad policy and practice. Forgotten in the maelstrom are simple principles of human learning and child development.
Towering intellectual figures like Jerome Bruner, leading linguists, and unsung teachers everywhere know that all learning is dependent on social context and loving relationships. The flip side, of course, is that stress, punishment and disapproval inhibit learning. It is simply baffling that we have an educational system in this country that intentionally causes stress, employs punishment despite several hundreds of years of proof that it doesn’t work, and disapproves of a great many things that real children do, like “Griddy Dance” across the stage as a fleeting expression of exuberance.
When you love children, you remember what it was like to be one of them. It allows you to join their games, not observe them from afar. There are few learning experiences more powerful than being regularly on the floor with children – for all parties involved. Eye-to-eye is the best human perspective – and talking down to children is toxic, in both the physical and semantic sense.
Most progressive schools are on a first-name basis. It is not a novelty or meaningless convention. It establishes a relationship of caring, of human equality, and fosters, not corrodes, respect. I ask you; how many times have you respected any person who insists on being addressed by their title, whether Mr., Mrs., Dr., Professor or other? To me it represents their insecurity, not their accomplishments.
You can’t win over children with arbitrary authority or rules that make no sense to them and should make no sense to us.
Think about the last time you read the word “love” in a school mission statement or job posting. And I don’t mean the common pablum “love of learning,” when the rest of the mission probably extinguishes curiosity.
The absurd panic over “pandemic loss” is only making things worse. And the ensuing pressure on and blaming of teachers is driving many of the best from the profession. My 2016 book and my blog are titled, “First Do No Harm.” I guess not enough people listened, although my book is still #2,600,000 at Amazon!
By contrast, Prince Harry’s memoir is 2023’s #1. Go figure.