Equity & Diversity Opinion

How Disrespect Hurts Kids

By Deborah Meier — December 13, 2012 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Dear Pedro,

Picking up from your words Tuesday: The argument ought not to be about the influence of schools vs. society. I think we agree about this. Schools are part of the society that both creates and sustains poverty and racism. Although I think test scores are the last place in the world where we’re likely to capture positive change in either school or society, that does not mean that the hours young people spend in school every day have no impact.

When I first began to teach—in the early 1960s—it was crystal clear to me based on two years of substitute teaching that the education the poor (and poor black children above all) received in Chicago was substantially different from the education that children in white middle-class families received. What struck me with perhaps equal intensity was the disrespectful ways teachers and parents were treated in such schools. I was, literally and naively, stunned.

In the few integrated schools I saw, it looked somewhere in between, like Shoesmith Elementary School, during the period in which my children attended it and I taught kindergarten there.

What became clearer were the ways a disrespectful setting hurts kids—leading us to miss some children’s potential for curiosity, thoughtfulness, creativity, independent spirit, and their relentless love of learning. (Even if not what we think needs to be learned first.) There seemed no question that even the best intentioned schools serving low-income black children actually organized schooling in ways that depressed children’s intelligence, curiosity, and openness to learning.

I soon discovered what I had not known and what was hard to observe—many children came into Shoesmith with a forewarning from home: Beware. Don’t trust “them.” Just “be good.” Be quiet, be well-behaved, don’t get in trouble, and watch carefully what you share with others in school, especially the adults. It was clear to me that many of the children who came into my classroom were not “the same” as the ones I observed daily in the playground across from my house, which was also their neighborhood playground. The silent children in my class were noisy ones at the playground, chattering, telling tales, rhyming, and laughing with each other. In time they began to do the same with me present, including in or out of the classroom. Even the middle-class and wealthy black families in Kenwood were wary; over time we began to talk about their experience vs. mine.

“If I don’t overdress my daughter for school,” one wealthy mother told me, “they’ll think I’m either too poor or too lazy to dress them properly. They won’t make that mistake with your children.”

If you go onto my website, Pedro, you’ll see some of the articles I wrote during those years. I think I was essentially right. I think what I didn’t see as clearly then as I did later was that the impact this had on the boys was greater than on the girls. They gave up on trying to “be good” earlier and faster. (To some extent this goes for white boys, too.)

When I overheard parents greet their children after school, what I heard over and over was: “Were you good today?” When I asked children why their parents sent them to school, they almost unanimously answered with stuff like, “to stand on line,” “to raise my hand before speaking,” to “walk and not run,” in short—"to be good.” (Ah, if only we thought “being good” was something deeper!) The dangers they saw in “being naughty” in school were hard for me at first to acknowledge. But today we should know better. They feared being “held back.” It was their worst fear—second only to losing a parent.

I decided I’d teach in the ways I had been taught in independent progressive school. That was easy, except that ... I had to understand better how the children and their parents interpreted my ways. Working closely, both formally and informally, with families was the harder part. For the next 50 years I wrote home each week about what we were doing. I held—in formal and informal ways—frequent in-person conferences, almost always including the child. I listened more carefully over time for signs of my own ignorance about how all children think and especially how the particular ones in my daily company were thinking. We did lots of story-telling, visiting the neighborhood, putting on plays, reading and reading, doing experiments, building blocks, painting, modeling, etc. And, I wondered , what would it be like if schools were truly part of their neighborhoods from kindergarten through 12th grade, and if all neighborhoods were as integrated in terms of race and class as that section of Kenwood was. (Maybe 20 percent of my students were white, and maybe an equal percentage were black and rich.) I spent the next decade teaching in all-back and all-poor communities and it was harder, but do-able.

How we meet the children we teach, and how we meet their neighborhood and family have an enormous impact on how useful or useless or worse-than-useless we are to children’s education. Yes, schools matter. Yes, poverty does, too. But ...

I cringe when I hear people on “my side” of the debate argue over “how” poverty impacts children. They misunderstand my view. Yes, a nation where 23 percent of the children are poor vs. one in which only 2 percent are (the United States vs. Finland) can’t expect equality of outcomes. Period. Yes, bad health, unheated homes, etc., are damaging. Yes, but ... I cringe when they use terms like “inadequately parented” or “deprived of language” to describe the kids I have taught for most of my life. Weirdest of all when some imply that since their parents haven’t taught them proper manners, looking people in the eye, etc., they need schools that spend more time on such “basics.” Nonsense. Quite the opposite is true. The head of the fancy Dalton School (for the very rich) in New York City said to me, after visiting the Central Park East (in East Harlem) school for a few hours, “but of course, your children are so much easier and well-mannered than ours.” She was right.

So, just venting a little, Pedro. I urge folks to go to my website and readand respond to pieces I wrote 50 years ago—not all of which I may agree with or would describe in the same words today. But I’m still essentially in agreement with myself. And, I think, with you. Where do you see the differences we might bridge—because I think there are some?

Twenty years ago I thought we were well on the way toward learning these lessons, and the slow and steady road forward seemed inevitable. ... Today, I just don’t know. It will take more than good books, articles, and inspiring movies to restore our confidence that what the wisest and wealthiest parent wants for his child is what every parent also wants for his/her child (to paraphrase Dewey). It includes enjoyably sharing the particular strengths and interests of each particular child and also an acknowledgement of how much they learn and have learned in the hands of their loved ones at home.


Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.