by Shelley Welch
I am currently reading Ellen Hall and Jennifer Rudkin’s Seen and Heard: Children’s Rights in Early Childhood Education. If you haven’t read it, you should. You should read it because we – educators, children, parents, administrators, politicians – must have this dialogue. You should read it because each of us is responsible to children collectively and ignoring or denying that responsibility is unacceptable. You should read it so that the next moment you have with a child, you are more aware of his rights and your impact on his self-determination.
Within these pages, I have found reflected what my intuition has voiced for many years: children have a right to be visible and vocal, and adults are accountable for creating a culture which supports their visibility and voice. With each chapter, I am continually struck by the depth of the authors’ seeing and the strong parallels Hall and Rudkin draw between children’s voicelessness and that of other marginalized and silenced groups. In driving these comparison’s home, the authors cite the opening lines of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man:
I am an invisible man…I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
I cannot help but replace man with child.
I am an invisible child…I am a child of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
It’s offensive, no? Rarely will one admit that he refuses to see children. He will say, rather, that children don’t have the pressing responsibilities that adults have, and he must hurry them along. Or, perhaps she reasons that children are too young to know what they want, and it is her job is to set them straight until they are old enough to set themselves straight. Yet, what is that age? My 17 year old still must raise his hand, and, in front of 29 other kids, ask permission to use the bathroom before he can possibly be released from class to care for himself. However, just over a year from now he will be living on his own in a dorm room with other not-old-enough peers and they will have to be old enough. And be quick about it!
What we need most urgently is a conversation. Does the idea of an invisible child compel adults to begin this conversation? Currently, the dialogue about children’s invisibility is not mainstream. This dialogue happens among a small group of folks who work daily with children (parents, caregivers, educators, therapists, etc) and who witness the negative impact of adults consistently imposing their own agenda on young children. No Child Left Behind is a stark example of adult agenda which has failed miserably and left in its wake burned out educators and children who are utterly apathetic about their own education (because they recognize they have no say about the unfolding of that education) and then are shamed, in an absurd twist on reality, because of their apathy.
What I want to explore right now, however, is not the impact of such an approach to young children on the young children themselves (that is my next post!), but the effect this dynamic is creating for educators. I wonder if many folks have inquired about teachers and how they function in such an environment? Let me tell you a story. I once witnessed a teacher “handling” a child who was struggling to say good-bye to his parents during morning drop-off. Mom was clearly struggling with her son’s tears and not ready to make a clean break. This teacher, however, was ready to end the struggle and she came from behind, picked up the boy and turned his body in the opposite direction so that he could no longer see his parents leave. He was furious: crying, kicking, squirming. I am ashamed to say that, in that moment, I turned away from the scene. My own rage at her utterly disrespectful behavior and my own sense of powerlessness to stop such moments between teachers and students was overwhelming. I was unable (unwilling?) to advocate for the child in the moment. Thankfully, I have taught this child for months, and he understands his rights in my classroom. He wasn’t having any of it! He refused to stop crying and hid his face in the corner until this teacher gave up and left, giving me the chance to go to him and support him in handling his strong reaction to the teacher’s mistaken behavior.
Even as he relaxed and allowed me to nurture him and validate his sense of injustice, my own sense of injustice was skyrocketing! These questions were flying through my mind: who is she to set the timeline for his struggle? why do some educators have zero tolerance for children’s intense emotions? why did I say nothing – what is that pressure that causes the witnessing teacher to allow such treatment of children? where is the administrative support for teachers who recognize and honor the rights of children? where is the administrative support to help all educators increase their awareness of children’s rights? where is the dialogue among these folks so that we can collaborate and hear each other’s ideas? what’s it like for the individual teacher in her classroom?
I can tell you what it’s like for me: at times I feel confused, overwhelmed, angry, hesitant to respond and insecure about my own perception of things. So few people recognize and acknowledge that many adults relentlessly push their own agendas on children. For example, if you have a child in kindergarten these days in the U.S., he or she is coming home with work, sometimes long-term projects to be completed during family time. Many parents allow this home intrusion, believing that teachers are experts and they must know what they are doing. But I am here to say that kindergarten teachers who give any homework at all are doing so in absolute ignorance because there is no research that supports the notion that kindergarten worksheets and homework improve long-term academic outcomes for students. To teach and exist in a world in which folks believe earlier is better is outrageous to me. I am a walking internal battle regarding this erroneous belief: schools press parents to have their child “kindergarten ready”, which pressure the parents then hand to me, a teacher of three year old children! And therein lies the dilemma: do I educate the parents about the truth of things, but leave their children vulnerable to being labeled as “behind” once they enter kindergarten or do I embrace the ignorance and hand out letter and number worksheets to my students?
What makes my challenge worse is that I already know the answer to that question: I am patently unable to embrace the ignorance, not because I am taking a stand against worksheets but because I must take a stand for the children. I simply cannot bring myself to violate their right to direct their own education, and to have my support and willingness to co-learn with them. And therefore, I return to the same spot I land near the end of each school year: where do I belong? what school is there that educates itself deeply about these issues and acts on them? where is the school in which parent, teacher, student and administrator collaboration is the norm and in which negotiated curriculum is truly negotiated by all of these folks? will schools allow themselves to grow in that direction? will I find such a home?
© 2016 Shelley Welch