The Teacher’s Gaze: What We Lose When We Pathologize Play
At my last school, providing the ‘why’ behind classroom expectations was considered frivolous and naive. The monolithic rationale that was offered to children and teachers was: students were in school to get the ever-catchy “knowledge-to-go-to-college.” Any act, by a student or teacher, was expected to be in pursuit of this end. This goal was used to justify a range of behavioral standards- from students not speaking or making eye contact at breakfast, to putting their pencils down in militaristic unison on the teacher’s cue, to tucking their shirts in their pants at all times, and “gluing” their hands to their sides when they walked.
The disconnect between these norms and the logic behind them, combined with the “broken-window” theory of management, led to three unhealthy currents. 1) it damaged the potential for developing collaborative relationships between students and teachers; 2) it mushroomed the responsibility a teacher had in any given moment; and 3) it pushed aside opportunities for students to support one another.
If you have not already gathered, my previous school was part of a large network of charter schools that are best known for their above-average test scores, and primarily serve low-income students of color. My current school works with a similar demographic, under a different mission and a diametrically opposed methodology. In the corniest simplification, my old school insisted that students answer questions, while my new school encourages students to question answers.
I compare the two, not to elevate one above another -- they both have salient strengths. Juxtaposing the two systems allows me to question my assumptions about what school, and the teachers and students within them, can and must be.
Returning to the relationship between norms and rationale. With regards to the first two side affects of disconnecting norms and logic: under this paradigm at my old school, a teacher’s role easily, quickly, and frequently slid into that of a vigilante. The language of ‘I'm always watching you’ was often used towards the children, and encouraged from above. Novice teachers were evaluated on their ‘radar’- whether or not they were able to ‘catch’ every student behavior. Admittedly, there were many times when our school was, on the surface, a calm setting which cleared the way for maximized formal instructional time. However this cosmetic serenity was held in place by the teacher’s gaze, and could easily be punctured if the gaze relaxed. The setting was volatile, and the surface tension fragile. A culture of of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ developed between students and teachers. Students were challenged to evade the teacher’s radar. As the teacher scanned the students at all times of the day- during lessons, transitioning in the hallway, when students arrived to school- even the most engaged, curious, driven students felt challenged to playfully dodge the laser beam.
When I worked at this school, not only did I disagree on principle with the notion that I was going to ‘poach’ any transgression, I also thought that this mentality made my job harder than it had to be. Even if I believed in such a set up, there was simply no way that I would be able to witness and address every time a child was misconforming to the school rules. After three years at this school, where consistent coaching and institutional memory helped me gain a solid foundation of teaching techniques that I am extremely grateful for, I was excited this year to start at a new school where I was free, and encouraged, to instill in students a deep understanding behind the expectations that were set for them, and through Frierian notions of dialogue, inspire them to question the standards they were being held to. The question for myself at my new school has been: how can I ensure that my students adhere to community norms, and also non-negotiable expectations in the classroom without requiring me to bear witness to all of their action? In the face of authority, how can collaboration exist between students and teachers? In a sense, it is the balancing act of influence and authority. Or perhaps, it is using authority as an influence. Two simple concepts, have served invaluable for this goal: the importance of friendship and playing.
I have often heard teachers worry that one student’s misbehavior will have a domino effect on other children, particularly if the source comes from a child with a large or influential personality. I firmly believe that a teacher can, not only contain the spread of a misbehavior, they can even solicit the help of those most susceptible to copying it as the main leaders of addressing it. The language that I sometimes fall on and have heard others use involves encouraging children to be ‘leaders’ when others around them are not following rules. However, I try not to use the word ‘leader’ in such situations, because it supposes that a leader is someone who follows rules, when in reality, the best historical leaders have had to break rules, albeit purposefully and thoughtfully. I was uncomfortable with this simplification of the concept of a leader, and needed a different word to explain the importance of adhering to norms. The language that I use, reminds students to be “good friends” to one another. A good friend doesn’t distract his or her friends from learning. If your friend is doing something that stops them from learning, and you don’t mimic it, or laugh, but instead guide them towards focusing again. This is particularly helpful in containing the spread of attention-seeking behavior during moments that a classroom needs narrow focus. A good friend, in this structure, becomes someone who supports their friend who is trying to learn, or helps a friend who is getting off track to start learning again.
This concept worked when I taught third grade, in stopping a group of boys from following the lead of a particularly provocative, charismatic rule breaker, and also works in kindergarten, from controlling a group of girls from mimicking the distracting whispers, and body squirms, of a fiery 5 year old in their mix. Often, all I have to say, when a child is misbehaving is to tell those around him or her to be a good friend, and tell the distracted child to do what his or her friends are doing. The behavior is insulated, and the child behaves because of the influence of friendship, not the teacher’s gaze. Does this always work? Of course not. However it does get rid of the teacher-student cat and mouse game, and also allows kids to behave, not because of teacher authority, but because of teacher and peer influence.
Finally on the notion of play. I have seen play becoming pathologized in the classroom. “Don’t play in line!” “Don’t play during a lesson.” Under these reactions, the celebration that play should be becomes vilified. Once again, this is problematic philosophically, but also makes the teacher’s job harder. The tension that is set up, not by the children, but by the teacher, is that the children want to play, and the teacher doesn’t want them to play. Not to mention that it does not allow for play to be part of the learning process. In an effort to create and maintain student-teacher collaboration, and ease me from the unbearable and impossible burden of policing kids’ play, I tell the kids that they must play; I insist that they play everyday, but that their challenge is to learn when to play, and when to learn. I realize that this language still doesn’t allow for play to be part of the learning process, so I still need to consider how to support the combination, not the distinction, of learning and playing.
I’ll end in an anecdote that ties management systems into the friendships that can be created in a classroom; two weeks ago, I was in a bookstore in downtown Brooklyn. I have thrown away all of the corporate paraphernalia that my old school gave us ( I scorned this superficial way of professionalizing teaching) but there is one zip up hoodie that I haven’t been able to part with, as those articles of clothing conform to the body and create sentimental relationships. As I was looking through a display near the register with contemporary classics including books by Junot Diaz, Louise Erdrich, and Toni Morrison, a teenager who was also perusing this display asked me if I worked for the network of schools that was on my sweatshirt. I was taken aback. The logo on my sweatshirt was the size of my pinky, how did she recognize it?
She was a senior at my former network's high school, and I eagerly asked her about how she felt about her experience. She immediately shared with me that it felt like a prison; I asked her if her opinion was representative of that of her peers, and she said she liked her school more than her friends and classmates. “I appreciate the intellectual skills that my education has given me,” she explained. Sadly, there is nothing unique about a teenager not liking her school but her subsequent comment was interesting to me. “Because they make such a big deal out of every small misbehavior, the students do as well. The drama, and the gossip, over the smallest things explodes, because we don’t have any opportunities to socialize with one another. So we get mad at each other over the smallest things” I don’t know, and neither did this girl, if the drama that was happening at the high school was just typical of high school seniors, or if it was particular to a group of students whose teachers ‘sweated the small stuff’ in reacting to their behavior. Regardless of the reasoning, what was interesting was the causality that this student ascribed- they make every small thing a big deal, so we do as well.
In the first three weeks of school, that have just passed, I have tried hard to deny my authority as much as possible, which means sometimes it lashes out at moments when my patience is worn thin. However in moments when I have a sense of my equilibrium, I try to distance the flow of the classroom from my will as much as possible. Part of me feels that this is hypocritical; ultimately, my voice and decisions are the most powerful in the room. The students did not construct the community norms, I did. And despite my altruistic intentions, students are still expected to put everything down, put their hands in their lap, and their eyes on me, after I tap on three chimes. It is false to deny how powerful my authority is, and to claim that I don’t use it. I use it in every moment of the day, in a multitude of ways. Even though I trust that my authority is used for reasonable means, how do I get my students to develop other modes of motivation? Some suggest that you start with authoritative motivation, and peel of this pressure to develop intrinsic motivation. I’d like to see if their interconnectedness with one another could be the most dominant first layer of motivation, and ultimately peel that off until they can balance their personal and communal interests.
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.