The year was 1979 and it was the last in her career so I guess she was a hold-over from some darker age where physical punishment and humiliation were acceptable methods of classroom management. My six-year-old soul knew, despite her advanced age and system-guaranteed authority, that she was wrong. Thirty-eight years have passed, and physical punishment has been done away with, but the potential to cause great harm still exists.
Mrs. Robinson used centers in her classroom, and one was a reward. If we finished all our other work, we could go to the Bean Center and make glorious art. Bins of various dried beans were available to glue onto large paper that had mimeographed images on them. An outline of a girl holding a basket of flowers could be filled with orange lentils for the hair, black-eyes peas for the speckled dress, and green lentils for the grass. I loved making bean pictures. I rushed through my other work so that I could be the first to the Bean Center and made one or two pictures a day.
After some time passed, Mrs. Robinson made class announcements one day. One of her complaints about our behavior that day included students who were making too many bean pictures, using too many beans, which she bought with her own money, and the most egregious over-user of beans, she announced to the class, was me. I was so eager to please, and so invested in praise and other extrinsic methods of motivation, that I about burst into flames with mortification.
One of the mantras of education today is “praise publicly, punish privately.” When I first heard it, in graduate school, it made total sense to me and I’ve tried to always engage with students in that way.
Except for once. When I was a new teacher, I had a colleague in another department who was famous for telling students he felt were under-performing or misbehaving, “extra-crispy.” When they’d look at him blankly, he’d add “When you’re working at McDonald’s and you serve me someday, that’s how I like my fries.” I thought that was pretty funny, and one day I tried it on a student. The poor boy looked at me with anger and betrayal and before he’d even responded, I knew what a horrible mistake I’d made. As he rushed out of class with the bell, I ran after him, mortified and apologetic.
It’s possible my colleague said it so frequently and with a certain kind of humor so that students didn’t take him seriously. Maybe. But for me, it felt wrong and it was wrong.
I want to communicate to children that I believe they are capable of anything, from writing a thesis well today, to becoming whatever they want in the future. Sarcasm, humiliation, even a failure to provide attention in a moment it’s needed, all communicate the opposite.
That boy Mrs. Robinson spanked was held back in third grade and I don’t know what happened to him after that. When I heard he’d been held back, my nine-year-old self thought it was because of that day Mrs. Robinson shamed him so awfully. I’m sure there was more to it, but I still believe it was a factor. The potential to affect a child’s life, for better or worse, is the most awful burden of being a teacher. We never know how our words and actions might ripple out. But we do know public words of humiliation will cause harm.
In my classroom, students can make all the bean pictures they want.