I write poetry, which I publish under my maiden name, Mary Wescott. I have a new one, and I figured, why keep it separate from my writing life as Mary Riser? So I went ahead and put it up at maryriser.org.
Often, but not always,
I watch the clouds outside
Sometimes, but not always,
I don’t notice them.
Murky at dawn, the sky
Does not clear so much
As resolve into dollops
Of cloud, processing across
The royal dome of the
Another day, a spill of gold
Beneath the palest silk,
A nebula, disintegrates below
The endless blue.
One morning, grey tufts
Drift along, bumping on the buttercream.
Keels heavy with rain rush over.
A ragged edge of continent
Broad skim of spider web or
Trailing corner cobweb
Daubs of flamingo pink
Heat the Eastern sky.
A quilt of bossy chevrons roughly stitched,
A riverbed of cobbles flows unstopped
Through hairy moss,
A shred of pebbled skin,
So much is made of water, light, and air.
My family moved from Middleton, Wisconsin to Columbia, Missouri between my fourth and fifth grade years. My new school was built of tan brick, low and long and sixties style, with an enormous playground where during recess you could swing, run, or play ball. I made a friend, and we played chase games at recess. I didn’t play ball; I liked music and dancing. One spring day at the beginning of physical education class, held outdoors on the playground, the teacher appointed two boys to be team captains. We were going to play softball. Each captain took turns choosing a kid to join his team. First they chose the boys, then the girls. Finally, I was the only one left who hadn’t been chosen. The captain whose team I would join by default, said, “That’s OK, you can have her.” I was the one who was not wanted on either team. I wished I could disappear. That moment of shame still makes me cringe for my fifth-grade self.
When I tell this story to my peers today, many remember similar incidents, wincing as they do. Not all of their memories are of the ball field – some are of round robin reading or spelling bees or math facts competitions. All of the memories, however, share the common factor of shame for a lack of skill that was almost entirely out of the child’s control. The shame I felt that day in fifth grade PE made an indelible impression on me. It confirmed that I was not worthy to join in any ball game and that other children would shun me because of my lack of skill. As a ten-year-old, I didn’t question the teacher’s practice, I just felt worthless. However, when I became a teacher, I never forgot that shame, and I became a champion of children who might be lacking skills through no fault of their own.
Many years later, I told my story to a physical education teacher at the school where I worked. I was concerned because I had heard that he let the kids choose their teams for class, and I didn’t want any child to face what I had faced. When he heard my story, he said, “Well, you turned out OK.” He did not see my experience as one the teacher should have prevented. Instead, he believed that my experience in the world of athletic competition not only had not harmed me, but had probably done me good by making me stronger. In some strange way, he thought it was appropriate that my complete lack of ball skills should be pointed out in public. I disagreed, knowing that my experience had been a formative one, but not one that had made me stronger or inspired me to learn better ball skills. In fact, that experience helped close the world of team sports to me permanently. From that day forward, I knew I was the worst at ball skills and shouldn’t even try.
As I reflect on my fifth-grade experience now, I recognize that adults (both teachers and parents) are not in agreement about what is best for children. Some adults think children should be tempered by the school of hard knocks, while some adults think children should be protected from all hurt and disappointment. I think that experiencing some hurt and disappointment is part of growing up, and that we should not protect all children from all hurts, especially if the behavior that results in being hurt or disappointed is within the child’s control. On the other hand, setting up a competitive class activity to demonstrate a child’s lack of skill does not teach the child that skill; it teaches the child to be ashamed.
Teachers wield great power, wittingly or not, for good or evil, whether their students are learning how to play ball or how to read or how to do any number of other things that schools require. Teachers must take responsibility for teaching skills to all children, regardless of each child’s aptitude. All children know that talents are unevenly distributed. It is the teacher’s responsibility to create an environment where those with great talent thrive while learning to help and support those with less talent, not shun or mock them. Teachers’ responsibility for the health and well-being of the students in their care is huge, and most teachers I know take that responsibility deeply to heart. My plea is for teachers to ensure that no lesson of theirs results in a child’s public humiliation for lacking a skill or talent over which they have little or no control. Shaming a child for her lack of skill teaches the wrong lesson. Instead of the child learning that she can master the skill with practice, she will learn that she is not worthy of being part of the group and that she should be ashamed of herself.
We each “know” many things superficially, but from time to time, we have a powerful personal experience that deepens our knowledge and makes an indelible mark in our memory. How do those lessons impact our daily lives? Following is the first in a series of articles about deep lessons I learned in school.
“If you don’t know what to do, watch others.”
Third grade found me in an old-fashioned public elementary school building in Middleton, Wisconsin: creaky wooden floor boards, narrow and pale; heavy metal desks whose lids lifted up to make a cave where you could hide your head and whose attached chairs squealed when dragged across the floor; and tall windows whose many panes framed a patchwork view of the metal monkey bars and tall swings on the empty playground. Like all the other children in the class, at the beginning of the year I was placed in a reading group. We were each given a textbook containing stories and articles, with a set of multiple choice comprehension questions at the end of each passage. The second time my group met, I was horrified to discover that everyone else had read the assigned passage and answered the questions, while I had not. The teacher called on me to answer a question, and I had to guess. I had no idea what the answer might be. I hadn’t done the assignment. I remember curling forward into my chair, trying to cover my face with the page before me.
When had everyone else done the work? How did they know when they were supposed to do it? As far as I could remember, the teacher had never told me when to do the assignment, and I was in a panic. I didn’t like being unprepared. After we finished our group meeting, I sat gazing out that big window, still feeling embarrassed and shocked. Then I noticed the other children. The teacher had gone to meet with another group, and each of the others in my group was reading the next passage and answering the questions. Ah, ha! I now knew when to complete the assignment before the next group meeting! What a revelation! I had learned the power of imitation. The fact that my embarrassment fueled my discovery is a topic for another article.
We know that humans learn by imitation. My third-grade lesson would not surprise any student of human behavior. However, the moment I realized, for myself, that I could figure out how to do something by watching others was a moment of great power for me. From that day forward, as a student, as a teacher, and eventually as a school administrator, I never forgot that I might be able to learn what I didn’t know by watching others. Whenever I met someone who elicited my admiration, I tried to watch that person closely, so I could learn whatever skill or attitude they demonstrated. I discovered that, on the whole, simple physical and intellectual tasks are easier to imitate and learn than interpersonal skills and psychological attitudes, but a careful observer can build an understanding of even complex skills or attitudes over time.
When I started teaching, I recognized that if I wanted to ask my students to be kind, respectful, diligent, trustworthy, polite, cheerful, and optimistic, I would need to model that behavior. The alternative – demanding compliance through fear and coercion – was not attractive to me. When I started working as a school administrator, I recognized that I needed to be a role model for teachers, as well. I created what I called my “Mrs. Riser disguise,” a role that I played to demonstrate for those around me the attitudes and behaviors I valued. Ironically, I discovered that it can be easier to be a role model while playing a part. The disguise I created was actually MORE kind, respectful, diligent, trustworthy, polite, cheerful and optimistic than my authentic self. I built the disguise to ensure that those around me would have an appropriate model, no matter how I actually felt. I made it my responsibility to play the role well, because I believed it was necessary to being a good leader.
I retired from being the Head of a small K-8 school in the spring of 2017, and during the final year I played the role of Mrs. Riser, and especially after the November 2016 election, I fretted on a daily basis about the example political leaders set for our children. I had spent 30 years in teaching, telling children never to bully or tease others in a mean way and seeking to demonstrate consistent kindness and respect for others in my own behavior, but now it seemed that every day the news showed a leader who bullied people, mocking them with unkind nicknames. The new President’s behavior would be cause for disciplinary action, were he a student in my school. I worried that his bullying behavior was offering a role model in direct opposition to the one I tried to portray.
Since my retirement, I have watched American politics with increasing dismay. How will America ever extinguish racism, bigotry and misogyny if political leaders participate in it or encourage it in public? I am heartened, however, to see that citizens everywhere in America are taking a deeper interest in the rights and responsibilities of living in a democracy. Having the right to vote in order to choose the people who take leadership roles in our government is a significant right – something not to be taken for granted. Young people are setting the example of political activism for all who care to see!
I am no longer in a work position where my actions are widely observed. Nevertheless, I remain committed to living as if I were, to cultivating behaviors that do not harm others. On line I do not resort to name-calling. I seek to understand those whose views seem wrong to me, rather than vilifying them. I watch my authentic self in action to see what I might learn.
Relationships and rules are the connections and guard rails of school communities. In schools that intentionally build strong, respectful relationships, rules become less necessary. Nevertheless, it is essential to have the rule that no one in school is allowed to act in a way that interferes with another’s right to a safe and supportive learning environment. This rule lays the foundation for a caring school culture and is easy to understand. It applies to everyone in the school – adults and children. When adults have strong, respectful relationships with their students, they are best able to coach children’s behavior to align with that foundational expectation. It’s important to remember that no one, teachers included, is able to behave respectfully and kindly at all times, but having the shared intention to do so helps each individual shape their behavior to support the school community.
Occasionally a teacher needs help with a particular student whose behavior is interfering with the classroom atmosphere or activity, despite the teacher’s repeated coaching. The teacher may be concerned about another student’s safety, or they may have become so frustrated that their coaching is no longer effective; they fear they won’t remain respectful in dealing with the student. When a teacher needs help, one common systemic approach in schools is to send the student “to the office,” where another adult is available to help coach the child.
When a child is sent to the office, it is usually because he or she 1) has been chronically socializing with friends during class, 2) has done or said something hurtful or disrespectful, 3) has disobeyed a direct order from the teacher, 4) has made noises or acted in a way that disrupted the class, or 5) has physically hurt or threatened violence to someone or their belongings. All of these behaviors are disruptive to the learning community in a classroom, and so are “against the rules.” In the years I worked in the role of the adult in the office to whom the child was sent, I developed a procedure for helping the child learn from having broken the rules. Here is the procedure, which can be used by any school administrator or lead teacher.
First: Ask the child why they are there. Have them tell you the story of why the teacher sent them to the office. Don’t be distracted by the child’s reports of others’ bad behavior, but keep the focus on the behavior of the child in front of you. Keep in mind that the child will be angry and/or frightened and needs to be heard. Often a child’s bad behavior was provoked by another, and they need to tell about that, but your focus is ultimately on what the child in front of you did that precipitated him or her being sent to you. Sometimes it helps to ask, “What did you do right before the teacher sent you to the office?”
Second: Ask the child why what they did caused a problem. If learning in a safe and supportive environment is the goal, how did their behavior interfere with that? It’s important for the child to understand that whatever they did kept the teacher from teaching or kept a student or students from learning. It is easier for some children than others to accept responsibility for their actions. Many children are very afraid of “getting into trouble,” but if they are minimizing or denying the impact of their behavior, you can point out that they are already “in trouble,” and working to improve the situation will help get them “out of trouble.”
Third: Ask the child what they want to have happen next and what they can do to make that happen. This usually involves making some kind of apology, and most children recognize this with little or no prompting. You can offer to go with the child to make the apology if you have a sense that he or she will have trouble following through, but it is more effective if the child can make the apology independently, as he or she will feel more competent and the teacher will be more impressed with his or her courage. Whether a child is able to take this action independently is also a function of their age. A Kindergarten student will usually need more support than a seventh grade student in making an independent apology. Help the child prepare by role playing what they are going to say to the teacher and/or the student or students to whom they owe the apology.
Nota Bene: If the child’s behavior involved any violence or threat of violence, remind the child that violence will not be tolerated, ever. In the schools where I worked, violence could result in suspension or dismissal, and it’s important for children to know whatever the consequence may be of further violent actions or words. If the child has broken or stolen something, he or she will need to replace that, in addition to apologizing.
Fourth: Ask the child to write a letter to you (the person in the office), explaining what they did, why it caused a problem, and how they will avoid the troublesome behavior again. It is useful to have a conversation with the child about their plan to change future behavior, as making a behavioral change is much more difficult than the child imagines it to be. As the adult, you may have suggestions for supporting the child’s efforts to change behavior. (Obviously, children who are not yet able to write cannot take this step, but giving the child a strategy for what to do instead of what they did is a very helpful coaching move.) The letter must be signed by the child and the parents and returned to you by the start of the next school day. Make sure the child’s homeroom teacher or advisor knows about this requirement, so they can support the child in the process of writing. Often once the child leaves the office, they find that they can’t quite remember what the letter was supposed to contain. A trusted adult at school can help discuss with the child the plan for behavioral change.
Fifth: Tell the child that you will be calling their parents to let them know what happened. Tell the child that you will be following up with the teacher to ensure that the apology is made appropriately. Occasionally, I would ask the child to call their parents from my office, especially if their actions had been hurtful to others. Having to call your parents, in front of a school authority, and say what you have done creates a powerful and memorable moment that can be an excellent deterrent to repeating the hurtful behavior – no one wants to make a call like that twice!
Sixth: Follow through. Touch base with the teacher who sent the child to be sure that the apology was made. Call the parent and explain what happened, asking for support to ensure the child writes the letter. Make sure you receive the letter. Keep a copy on file. If the behavior is chronic or you deem it particularly of concern (especially if violence is involved), it is wise to write a formal follow-up letter to the parents that states what happened and that you are confident the child will not repeat the action. If you need to warn parents formally of possible suspension or dismissal if the behavior reoccurs, include that warning in the letter. In the phone call to the parents I would let them know if I were going to send an official letter, and I would reassure them that I would keep the letter only until the end of the year and would not put a copy in the child’s permanent record.
Seventh: Once you receive the child’s letter, have a final conversation with the child. Let him or her know that you talked to the teacher, that you received their letter, that you know what their plan for the future is, that you will be checking to see how things are going, and, finally, that the event is now closed. Children need to know that you forgive them for their mistake and that they have a fresh start. Each day in school should be a new day, a day open to learning and belonging.
“It’s pronounced like the peppah,” said the young woman from London, her red and black braids swaying over her shoulders while I struggled to say her name, spelled KyAnn, properly. (Cayenne pepper, my slow-moving brain finally figured out!) KyAnn was one of sixteen young adults sitting in the circle at the first meeting of our LivingSideBySide (LSBS) workshop this summer at the Global Youth Village (GYV) in Bedford, Virginia. In the circle with us were Abomullah, from Saudi Arabia; Marwa, from Aswan, Egypt; Luciana, from Dominican Republic by way of Boston; and a dozen other young men and women from all over the world. Our common task was to learn more about ourselves, each other, our shared human values, and the communication skills necessary to build peace in our diverse world. I was honored and thrilled to have the chance to work with these extraordinary young people.
Global Youth Village is a summer program for high-school youth from all over the world who come to a camp near Bedford, Virginia to expand their peace-building and leadership skills through study, play, collaboration, challenge, discovery, and friendship. The program has been running each summer for forty years, and the lessons learned by the parent nonprofit organization, Legacy International, have been put to good use in many other youth development programs, including the creation and growth of the LivingSideBySide (LSBS) peace-building training, the educational core of GYV.
As a member of the GYV staff this summer, my role was to facilitate a LSBS workshop, providing training in self-awareness, multi-cultural appreciation, and effective communication skills in a concentrated morning session each day for seven days. In between our sessions, those in my workshop joined a larger multi-cultural group, totaling 44 young adults, engaging in a wide variety of activities designed to reinforce the LSBS workshop content, with many opportunities to practice and reflect upon their new knowledge. All of the young adults at GYV participated in LSBS training – mine was one of three workshops. In my group of sixteen, some participants were Muslim, some were Christian, one was Jewish, some were white, some were black, some spoke English well, some spoke English as a second or third language, some were from cities, and some were from rural settings. Their ages ranged from 14 to 19, and their life experiences were vastly different. What united them was a willingness to recognize their shared universal values and their consistent efforts to treat each other with deep respect.
Our workshop focus on effective communication and serious engagement with challenging issues led to an Open Space Technology meeting on the second to last day of the camp. The format allowed the 44 youth participants to create their own agenda and facilitate their own conversations about critical issues in today’s world. Participants offered penetrating questions for discussion, including: Why are Muslims seen as terrorists? How can we eradicate gun violence? Is arranged marriage OK? Is organized religion needed in the modern world? Is capitalism failing western countries? Is formal education necessary for success? How can we end poverty? Can blacks be racist? How can we solve the housing crisis? These questions, among others, were all generated by the youth participants, and the discussions that followed were serious, passionate, respectful, and entirely youth led. None of the staff participated except to create the framework in which the questions were offered, and the space and time for the discussions.
At one point during the Open Space Technology meeting, I found myself moved to tears, watching these earnest, passionate young adults discuss deeply some of the very questions that challenge our world today. My heart was buoyed by their intensity and dedication, their mutual respect, and their ability to listen deeply to each other. The knowledge and relationships they built during GYV will persist as they enter the worlds of university and work, creating a tightly-knit network of understanding across the world. The skills they practiced during GYV will serve them in their daily lives to build peaceful, respectful relationships with everyone they meet. It was an honor to work with them, and I am confident the world will be better because of their presence in it.
My experience at GYV reinforced my belief in the power of the LSBS curriculum. I have been working with Legacy International to help bring the LSBS curriculum to American teachers and youth workers, who are faced with increasingly diverse classroom populations and a youth and media culture that distracts from effective, respectful communication. LSBS training for adults will lay the foundation for developing peace-building skills in the youth with whom they work. On the eve of the anniversary of the August 2017 violence in Charlottesville, I am deeply aware of the need for American youth to expand their awareness of self and others and to develop their ability to work respectfully with those who don’t agree with them but who share their common humanity.
Recently I watched my nephew tell his father, in the midst of an argument, “You don’t see it the way I see it, and I don’t see it the way you see it.” Then he took some deep breaths to compose himself and changed the subject. He had realized that he was not going to convince his father of his point of view. He knew how to stop arguing before he started accusing his father of stupidity or unfairness, but he didn’t know how to resolve the issue at the heart of the argument. I internally applauded his maturity, but felt somewhat sad that there couldn’t be a next step, with each side being willing to take the other’s perspective, leading to a search for common ground and compromise.
It seems to me that our nation is in the midst of a number of arguments where we have taken sides against each other. Now our need to be right is making us angry. Each side is trying to bully the other side into submission, and the uglier it gets, the more entrenched we become in our positions. Demeaning those who don’t agree with us doesn’t convince our opponents to see things our way. We oversimplify issues instead of seeking common ground from which we could make progress toward compromise.
We need to work together to resolve serious issues, such as: what roles government should play in the lives of our people, how to achieve justice for all Americans, how to keep our children safe and healthy, how to educate our population to be effective citizens in a participatory democracy, how to respond to environmental degradation, how to manage the effects of rapidly changing technology on work and leisure, what role America should play on the world stage. Instead, we languish in shouting matches with each side accusing the other of morally reprehensible behavior.
So long as we remain polarized, we will remain angry, feeling alternately powerless and powerful, with no real national wisdom or compromise possible. If we are truly “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” we should be able to have difficult conversations without trying to win our point by insulting each other. The government of a democracy represents the people of that democracy, and our people are pitted against each other. The promise of America is diminished by the mob mentality of making us “for” or “against” simplistic versions of complicated issues.
As a school teacher, I recommend cooperative problem-solving, not bullying or vicious competition. I recommend thoughtful listening and reflection before making pronouncements or taking critical decisions. I recommend taking personal responsibility and voting for someone who can work effectively with others to tackle the serious questions facing our country.