Sadly, We Remember the Bad Stuff Teachers Said and Did When We Were Young

It is really remarkable. As a former college president, I was repeatedly reminded that we can do 99 things right for and with a student but what they focus on and remember and talk about while in school and as alums is often that one bad encounter, that one bad professor, that one bad incident. And, it is not easy to cut through that bad memory to revive the good memories. It is as if the bad incident/memory literally takes over our brain space and crowds out good memories.

It is in this context that I have been reflecting on teachers and teaching across the K-12 pipeline. And, in that context, I recently wrote a blog about how two students were affected by unintentional behaviors of teachers that left the students feeling left out and diminished. These were not “bad” teachers. I hoped that it would serve as a reminder that small things teachers do really do matter.

And, the further point — the one addressed here — is that folks remember these small seemingly innocuous events involving teachers and coaches decades later. In fact, I think that when one has children and these children are in school, this revs up the parental memory engine; when our own child is slighted by a teacher or coach, we remember the slights we encountered as children yet again and in a brighter light. And even if our own children are treated well, we remember the times we (the parents) were not so fortunate.

We have long memories it seems for seemingly small slights that occur in our youth.

It is in this context that a parent and I were recently discussing her children and the schools they attend and the experiences they have had, mostly excellent with some modest exceptions. But, as with many conversations with parents, there’s almost always mention of that horrible teacher in their children’s elementary school who has been around for centuries it seems and who is just plain mean (or at least it feels like she acts with meanness). That teacher’s meanness is a shared story — students and parents remember this teacher and talk about her for decades into the future.

Who needs and wants that set of memories? Can’t we bond off positives?

But, in this conversation, as in many others, this particular parent suddenly shared (and I was a complete stranger to her then), that her own third grade teacher (now decades ago) used to place the desks three across in the classroom. The center desk in each row was for the “roses” and the desk on either side was for the “thorns.” And how one was categorized — as a “rose” or a “thorn” was a year-long designation that could not be adjusted or altered by behavior or good grades or any other positive act. Basically, once a thorn, always a thorn.

And here’s the important part: this articulate, smart woman still refers to herself as a “thorn” and she has told and retold that story to her own children who are now old enough to say back: “We get it. We know. You were the thorn, not the rose.” I had an immediate desire to go get this woman a rose (without thorns to be sure) — to see if serve as some sort of salvo. And, I wanted to find that teacher, whom I am sure has passed on, just to share the damage she did and prevent her from inflicting it on other students. Where, by the by, was the principal in all this and the parents of the thorns? I get that the “rose” parents remained silent. I would have lasted one nano-second with my son being a “thorn” for a year.

Being singled out as “bad” got me to thinking about the games we play with children, often without thinking about their impact. Now, games are different from teacher behavior. But, the point is that some games are just plain mean and can negatively affect children and we have played these games for so long, we don’t even think about the messages they are conveying.

Before I share one or two such games, I want to be abundantly clear: I am NOT talking about always winning, the scenario where children never lose a game. I am not talking about “participation” trophies either. I am not talking about making it seem as if every kid excels at everything. No, I am not saying that, although I do think we need to do a better job of having both kids and teachers and parents recognize that there are a myriad of ways in which our talents can shine and most people don’t shine in dance and art and basketball and Math and English lit and three foreign languages and deeply creative problem solving and IT and coding and empathy all at once.

Back to games and their messaging. This example was inspired by my concern an4d that of hundreds of thousands of others regarding the detention of immigrant children (although apparently at least one non-immigrant child was detained) and their separation from their parents. Psychiatrists, pediatricians and psychologists, among others, have described the lasting impact of separation on children of all ages but particularly the young. Insecure attachments is a last problem and we are creating thousands of children who will be suffering as they mature.

With that in mind, I still have bad feeling about the game, with a happy title but unhappy outcome, called Musical Chairs. Remember? There are chairs for everyone at the beginning. Then, a chair is taken away and the music starts and the kids march around the chairs. Then the music stops and kids rush to get a chair. But, there is one chair too few or one child too many. And, that child without the chair is out of the game. And this repeats and repeats as the chairs diminish and more and more children are out of a seat.

How does that feel for kids to be left out? How would it feel if your parents had separated and now you are the chair-less one in class? For me, someone for whom fitting into a blended family was an issue, losing my chair (or “a” chair) left me feeling like I felt every day at home: left out, odd kid out, the one who didn’t fit. You get the idea.

Why would we have kids play a game, in the name of fun and with fun music, where the aim is exclusion not inclusion? I don’t get it and I know that game is still regularly played. Is the goal to learn to be tough and experience what it is like to be on the losing end? There are lots of ways to do that without literally taking away one’s seat. Let’s just say that Musical Chairs is not a game that immigrant children — whether detained or not — should be called upon to play. Why would we create insecurity and denial of a place at the table (or a seat as the case may be)? Actually, it’s a game that should be discarded for all children in my view.

That got me thinking of other games and ways in which we play games. How are teams picked in gym classes? Are kids on each side picking and who gets picked last time and again? Don’t we realize that that child will remember that every time teams are picked, they are not selected early? Ever. The tall kid, the small kid, the uncoordinated kid, the shy kid…..

Now there are games we play that message well. Ring Around the Rosy is one such game. Note the major refrain: We ALL fall down. That’s the point: all the children are involved. How about Simon Says? Played in a group, there are often kids who together do something without the magic words “Simon Says” first. As long as it is not one child singled out, that game encourages thoughtful listening and laughter, especially if Simon is asking for us to do silly things.

The word “laughter” gets me to my final point. We often make learning and even game playing so serious we take the fun out of it. (There is a reason I just co-authored a children’s joke book on giraffes.) We create stress in some schools where the expectation of success demands excellence and delivers a sense of failure if one gets a grade below A. How bad is that? The school may be of the highest quality but is the student experience the best? I know one charter school known for its rigor and extremely high reading scores. The kids there read and read and read. If they have a free moment, they are asked (forced?) to read. One of the consequences of this is that reading for some of these kids ceased to be fun. Reading was what you did when you were done with your work and not allowed to sit idle. (What would be wrong with drawing or writing music or writing a story or doing crafts?)

Ouch. Bad messaging. Bad approach. And, I adore books. Beating the love of books out of someone is, for me, a Cardinal Sin.

So, here are the lessons for me:

  1. We need to reflect on the games we play with children and how and what they message. Some children’s games have become so commonplace that we play them without reflection. I’d ask readers to ponder the games they played and the messaging (both positive and negative). I recently played Hangman and as I did I kept thinking: Really? We hang people who don’t get the answers right and pick the right letters? What message is that?

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Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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