Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Being a Problem

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Being a Problem

Article excerpt

"I've come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It's my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized."

--Haim Ginott, Teacher and Child (Macmillan, 1972), p. 15

I had expected to write this column about Haim Ginott's conception of who has the power to set "the weather" in classrooms and schools. But, as I read Greg Patterson's interview with four African-American educators in this issue of Kappan, one phrase pulled me up short: How does it feel to be a problem?

The comment came from Richard J. Reddick, assistant professor of education at the University of Texas at Austin, who was quoting W.E.B. DuBois from The Souls of Black Folk (1903).

I kept returning to those two powerful ideas. On the one hand, Ginott presents a young educator confronting the "frightening conclusion" that he can shape a child's day and, thus, his life. On the other, DuBois poses a more troubling question of how a child must feel when days and weeks and years have drilled into him that mainstream society thinks he's a mistake.

If the teacher controlling the weather confronts a child in whom a storm is brewing, who can calm the waters?

Quelling the storm

DuBois' question, so powerful yet so personal, challenges educators to put themselves into the mindset of a child, especially a black male child who is perceived at almost every step to be a threatening troublemaker. DuBois goes on to describe the "double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." To rephrase his question: How does it feel to be a black boy in America and know that almost everyone you encounter is prone to react in a negative way because they are afraid you will hurt them?

We've seen that play out in Trayvon Martin's killing and more recently in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. We see it in smaller ways every day in American schools. Although those in-school reactions may not result in violence, they play a part in laying the groundwork for confrontations between black boys and individuals in authority. …

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