Thursday, May 20, 2010

Imagining Sherri Davis: Reflections on the GMA Interview

"Well, say you're having a problem with a student.  How would you deal with it?"
"I would document the child's behavior and try interventions such as using successive approximations towards our goal or home involvement, depending on the individual situation," I explained.  After a silence, I added, "I wouldn't call the office every five minutes."
He closed the little notebook on his lap and announced, "You're hired."
- Educating Esmé
When we are preparing for the role of classroom teacher, I think it's safe to say that we don't imagine ourselves in the role of Sherri Davis, the two time "Teacher of the Year" from Texas who lost control and gave her student the beating of a lifetime that was caught on tape.  In education, there is a lot of buzz about "accountability."  I have no doubt, unless she pleads temporary insanity, Davis will be found guilty and held accountable  for beating a child; she would have to be, for the sake of precedent, and on a level, she would probably want to be if she is truly sorry. While clearly Ms. Davis is committing an assault,  Ms. Davis' willingness to explain with some candor the circumstances from her point of view offers warrants our reflection, and offers some insights that may be used by the more savvy among us to create some future improvements in our school systems and in our own preparation.  Please do share your own reflections in the context of your own experiences.  What do you recognize? With which role do you most identify?

Watching the tape, I can't help being reminded of dramas played out at my schools in my own career as an urban educator:  A pregnant teacher having a desk hurled at her belly by an angry middle grade student.  Pulling out a gun from a backpack and being told by an administrator that the child brought it "just for show," and not to worry.  Breaking up physical fights while other adults stood by. I have had friends threatened, their tires slashed. I have heard little boys call their female classmates "whores," I have been called a whore and worse, and dealt with their surprise and ensuing arguments when they were corrected.  I think of my own notoriously unyielding Dragon-Lady moments of tough love; not physical, but unrelenting, unmoved even by young tears.  And for everything we do right every day, naturally, even for small offenses a teacher questions:  what could I have done better?  Could I have been kinder?  Calmer?  Taken a different tack? Teaching is a job with many fluctuations between reward and regret.  Knowing this about ourselves as professionals, even for all our sympathies for the child, it is hard to cast the first stone.

I think of my own teacher training at Northeastern Illinois University in the 1990's, where I was miraculously afforded an amazing preparation program with the worst case scenarios in mind:  in classroom management, we learned how to put children in body holds to prevent them from doing harm to themselves or others, we discussed protocol for evacuating children from  a crowded classroom where violence was occurring.  We discussed how to handle situations involving weapons, though we could all feel inside the vagaries of circumstances that would direct our actions on such an unfortunate day.  Once I was teaching, we were inserviced on recognizing gang affiliations.  But we were not inserviced on what to do when there was shooting outside the building, or when we needed someone to walk us to a car after working late into the night in a school in a rough neighborhood, or when a child threatens or is profane toward another child, or a grown-up, and there's no one in the office who is willing to attend to it while you have thirty-some other children staring and waiting for you to move on. 

I also remember my own experiences of watching borderline criminal behavior from a child's point of view.  I remember going to a terrible Chicago Public School for sixth grade, walking through the metal detectors, watching the bullying, the fights, the cornering, coercions and threats, pulled hair and screaming, boys inappropriately touching and threatening to sexually assault the girls, the derisive laughter and name-calling, the frustrations of poverty, all in the course of a school day...did the teachers see it?  Did they see me trying to be invisible, to disappear from the radar of the children who loomed like terrorists in our own classroom?  I almost wrote, "their own classroom," how telling; this school did not belong to me.  Did the teachers know what it was like to listen to their hours of berating and correcting these children, as a child who did nothing to warrant such condemnations?  And yet, even as a little girl enduring this noise, I remember thinking, "good, try, please, do what you need to do to stop them."  Thinking of this, I imagine the scene in Ms. Davis' classroom from the eyes of the girl who was allegedly being teased. To that girl, her teacher likely was a lioness.  Was her teacher also a villain?  Was she both?  In the end, with hindsight being 20/20, Davis regrets that she didn't take the bullied girl and walk away.  Realistically, how could she walk away?  And go where?  And leave the rest of the children alone?  Where were the other adults, the emergency buzz on the intercom? 

What also comes to mind is a passage from Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, describing a situation in a frontier classroom:
"These big boys thrash the teacher and break up the school.  They boasted that no teacher could finish the winter term at that school, and no teacher ever had. This year the teacher was a slim, pale young man.  His name was Mr. Corse.  He was gentle and patient, and never whipped little boys because they forgot how to spell a word. Almanzo felt sick inside when he thought how the big boys would beat Mr. Corse.  Mr. Corse wasn't big enough to fight them."
The story continues, describing insolence and disruptive behavior in the one-room schoolhouse by the band of boys, led by the teenager "Big Bill," and it is revealed that these boys have caused death to teachers in the past. The other children cannot concentrate on their work, or complete their lessons, in anticipation of the inevitable confrontations. Little Almanzo confides in his father, "I wish I was big enough to fight 'em!"
"'Son, Mr. Corse was hired out to teach the school,'  Father answered.  "The school trustees were fair and above board with him; they told him what he was undertaking.  He undertook it.  It's his job, not yours.'
'But maybe they'll kill him!'  Almanzo said.
'That's his business,' said Father.  'When a man undertakes a job, he has to stick to it till he finishes it.  If Corse is the man I think he is, he'll thank nobody for interfering.' 
....Big Bill tore off his coat, yelling, 'Come on boys!' He rushed up the aisle.  Almanzo felt sick inside; he didn't want to watch it, but he couldn't help it.
Mr. Corse stepped away from his desk.  His hand came from behind the desk lid, and a long, thin, black streak hissed through the air. 
It was a blacksnake ox-whip fifteen feet long.  Mr. Corse held the short handle, loaded with iron, that could kill an ox.  The thin, long lash coiled around Bill's legs, and Mr. Corse jerked.  Bill lurched and almost fell.  Quick as black lightning the lash circled and stuck and coiled again, and again Mr. Corse jerked."
illustration by Garth Williams

In this frontier memoir, Mr. Corse wins the battle and the war, and regains classroom control in a society where the parental attitude was "if the teacher has to thrash you again, I'll give you a thrashing you remember."  The problem of insanely brutal threats to classroom management are not new in the American classroom, nor are the extreme responses of educators.  What I hear in Ms. Davis' interview is,  if you'll excuse my paraphrasing, If nobody was planning on interfering on my behalf, I needed an ox whip to deal with this level of a discipline problem.  And if you're not going to give me a way to deal with a threat, then you had better make sure somebody is there when I lose my temper and my mind.

Davis describes the necessity for more back-up from home, more training, more peer support and Samaritan spirit. (If wishes were horses!) But in the absence of these needs being met, are we permitted to resort to the tactics of the Wild West?  We cannot have corporal punishment in schools; I know even if it were allowed, I would not want to apply it. I observed in my own diary, "Why are the children who are beaten the ones I end up fearing the most?" The great pedagogue Janusz Korczak who ran orphanages in Poland in the early part of the last century suggested that a child who can learn by being hit was one who had the capacity to learn another way.  That's why the stupidest part of the interview, in my opinion, are the remarks made by the lawyer:  "she was not trying to hurt the child, she was trying to get his say 'hey, we need to act correct, appropriate, and get a hold of ourselves."  This rings insincere and hypocritical, a ridiculous suggestion of modeling by brutality, and goes against Davis' own, more honest admissions that suggest she was angry, fed up, unsupported, and lost control, and while there are reasons, there is no excuse. As far as I can tell, Davis is saying, as someone who enjoyed some success in the field, there are conditions with which as a teacher and a human being she simply could not contend. The very vision of a role she had prepared for was hijacked and rendered unrecognizable even to her by the behavior of a little boy who never learned to receive the best in another person or offer the best of himself.  She hit because she was in a rage of disappointment, not because it was in the interest of the child.  Any other teacher watching this interview can tell that Davis herself recognizes that much.   

What Do You Do With a Child Like This: Inside the Lives of Troubled ChildrenAs a mother, who can't imagine the fury! How dare Ms. Davis! We do not send our children to school for this! Truly, there is no excuse! And last but certainly not least, we must look at the story from the beaten boy's point of view.  Cowed and victimized, is what Ms. Davis says about him true? We might imagine that, whether the punishment fit the crime, he might have indeed put that straw on the camel's back.  What comes to mind is a quote from L. Tobin's marvelous and inspiring book, What Do You Do With a Child Like This?:  Inside the Lives of Troubled Children, "The hurt that troubled children create is never greater than the hurt they feel."   It is horrible and nightmarish to be bullied.  It is also horrible and nightmarish to wake up every morning and be a bully.  It is horrible to be a child without boundaries, whose moral compass is spinning, to feel your own monster or to have your judgment meander through a void where a conscience should be, or to have a mother who makes excuses for you and expresses love through her reactions instead of preemptive actions.  To go to a school, perhaps, where children are working on the floor, without desks and supplies, surrounded by weary adults who start each day in anticipation of the wrongdoing which you supply.  L. Tobin also explains,

"I have learned that the child who evokes my anger is a gift to me.  He embodies the unresolved issues I carry at the time:  rebellion, anger, selfishness, self-doubt--the hurt within me.  As I work with this child I am invited to confront the passion of our shared struggle.  I can respond or attempt to avoid it.  But this child will force the issue---that is the gift."

There is a gift in the anger that we feel when we see Ms. Davis at her worst; a chance to examine what we can do in all of our parents, teachers, coworkers, administrators, prevent these kind of incidents, and to recognize our shared struggle in becoming better than who we are.  There was no one in this sad situation that could not have done better. I am frankly surprised such outbursts are as infrequent as they are, especially with so much being asked of teachers and children, and less and less room in the day to form the relationships that  can prevent this animosity. This interview might discourage people from entering the field where we are most needed as educators, but it also might stand to help better prepare us so these incidents will not be repeated:
  • Realistically, expect little support from outside: go into classrooms with your own supplies and resources.  Inservice yourself creatively online and through professional reading.  Get your rugs, your books, your plans as if you were entering a naked space; apparently, Davis did, and you may, too.
  • Find mentors in the building who have your back and who may advise you.  Find them in cyberspace if you can't find them in your real place.
  • Make time in your week for conflict resolution meetings between the children (I have a prototype in my book; there are also many models available on-line).
  • Even in this economy, do not go to work in spaces where your safety and the safety of children is not at a premium. Ask at the interview what measures are taken to ensure the security of all, ask about the protocol for discipline.  And if it fails you, you have to leave or make a change before it causes you to fail in a way that can end your career.
  • Take the time to prepare for classroom teaching; for all the feeling of emergency to do good, do not take shortcuts in training, avoid the trial by fire, and do not expect to be trained on the job.  You can't learn everything in teacher preparation, it's true, but in a profession in which children's lack of prerequisite skills, poor parenting, ineffectual mandates by people with agendas outside of the development of children and neighborhood violence are all out of your control, how qualified you are to meet the needs of children is one of the few things that still remains in your control. 
  • Bystanders are contributors to problems.  Be an upstander if you see a coworker start to spiral. Little things:  holding friends by the shoulders and counting, modeling deep breaths, herbal teas or chocolates in the mailbox,  saying "STOP" firmly, task forces to constructively address problems arranged by teachers themselves all are ways to help remind your cohorts "this too shall pass" when you see signs of burnout...or meltdown.
  • Don't wait until the needle hits the red zone.  Express disappointment and deliver consequences before you are really angry. Advocate for your needs and the needs of your charges before you are really angry.  Once you are truly furious, you will no longer be able to make good choices. Act angry and organize around about the things you know will ultimately infuriate you before you hit your emotional flash point, and you can emerge as a leader rather than an example.