Today, I want to discuss a topic related to education: coercion in the school systems.
Should students be forced to take certain subjects in school? What happens when the voice of an educator becomes louder than our own internal voice?
What are the consequences of telling students, “I know you said that you wanted to take English because you love writing, but you have to take geometry.”
When we blindly accept the system, we are causing our children to grow up to believe that authorities figures (ex. Educators) know what is best.
I’ll share a story about an experience I had with my principle in middle school. It was the first time that I decided to trust an authoritative figure rather than my own instincts.
One afternoon, I walked into my art class along with a dozen other twelve-year old kids. I had been slaving away on some particular art project for weeks and it was almost complete. I was excited to give it to my mom on Mother’s Day. I knew she would be overjoyed to get a heartfelt gift from me this year.
I scanned the wall, but my piece wasn’t there. After scouring the room, my teacher suggested that maybe it fell into the trashcan. Trembling, I asked if I could go to the bathroom.
I went into the hallway and immediately burst into tears.
When I looked up I saw the principle of the middle school standing over me. “Come into my office,” he said.
I obeyed and followed him in. “Why are you crying?” he asked. “What’s wrong?” He asked in a supercilious tone.
“My artwork that I wanted to give to my Mom for Mother’s Day is gone,” I said. A few more tears rolled down my face.
“I think I know what this is all about,” he said. “Your sad about your dad dying,” he said.
My principle, let’s call him Mr. Scott, found out about my dad’s death before anyone else. When the police came and discovered that my father was dead, they found my school directory and called Mr. Scott, who then informed my mother.
I felt my jaw tighten. I hated that this man knew that my dad was dead before I did. I hated him for thinking he knew the way my mind worked and heart ticked.
You don’t know me, I thought.
Were all of my problems going to be attributed to my Dad’s death now? What if lost artwork is simply lost artwork.
I looked at my bony legs that were glued to the seat because I couldn’t bear to look at this man’s eyes. Finally, my eyes met his. His expression was begging me to agree with him.
“That’s what’s wrong isn’t it?” he prodded.
I shook my head, tears welling in my eyes again. I wanted to scream ‘No’ but my tongue and mouth weren’t working.
“Oh come on. I don’t believe that you’re just crying about your artwork,” he said.
His condescending voice made me sick. His white prickly beard made me sick. I had never felt rage so strongly. Boy, did I feel it now.
I stared at him defiantly. “I was going to give it to my Mom,” I said.
“Make her a new one! It’s okay,” he said.
I may not have been able to articulate it then, but I felt invalidated. I had spent a lot of time on that piece and he didn’t seem to care.
“This is about your Dad,” he said again.
Suddenly the fire hot temperature of my eyes cooled off, the twinkle disappeared, and the light dimmed.
Defiant anger turned to intimidation and submissiveness.
Maybe I don’t know myself as well as I thought…
He’s an older, established, educated person and I’m just an overly sensitive girl with a dead dad, not even smart enough to pass an entry exam into the seventh grade.
He was looking for an answer.
I nodded. “Yes, it’s about my dad,” I said. “I miss him so much.”
In that moment, everything changed. I was learning that men knew what was best for me even better than I knew what was best for me. I was learning to distrust my instincts, feelings, and thoughts. It was as if in that moment I stuffed all of the trust I had in myself in a suitcase and shipped it off somewhere foreign, where it never quite returned. I learned to be compliant and submissive.
I lost a bit of myself that day. It fell into the garbage can along with my piece of artwork.
This is an extreme and personal example, but I believe that by telling children that they can and cannot take certain classes in school is a subtle way of telling them that they do not know themselves at all.
Nel Noddings, an American feminist, philosopher discusses this very topic in her book Educating Moral People: A Caring Alternative to Character Education. Teachers and educators often “take a highly moralistic tone, insisting that what they are demanding is right and that coercion and cruelty, if they are used, are necessary for the child’s ‘own good.’ Most of us have heard from some teacher or adult ‘someday you’ll thank me for this” (Noddings, 29).
Let’s stop for a moment to talk about this. Do we actually thank these teacher’s later?
Yes, sometimes we do. Sometimes we are glad that we did that hard work that we never would have actually done if someone older didn’t nudge us in the right direction. Let’s be honest, sometimes kids give up too quickly. Almost all of them would rather play with their friends at recess than learn about history. I get that. If we don’t nudge them toward productivity no one else will.
But what if they want to pursue something and they are continuously being shut down by adults? When they come to us and share an interest they are trusting us. We are squelching their passion when we tell them to do something else instead. They came to us for guidance on how to fulfill their dreams and we told them what is best for the mass, not what is best for that individual.
If J.K. Rowling or Shakespeare failed a math class would you ask them to repeat it? No! Write, just get back to writing…. You have a God-given talent.
Nel Noddings goes on to say “it suggest strongly that their own interests purposes, and talents are not highly valued- that to be valued themselves, children must conform to a particular model of success” (Noddings, 30).
What are the consequences of implying that students don’t really know themselves so well after all?
Frustration, feeling dumb, people-pleasing personality traits, turning away from themselves, identity crises, extreme difficulty saying “no.”
“No thank you, Sir, I don’t want to go out with you.”
“No, actually I don’t need another drink, thanks anyway and have a good night.”
“I want to go to this college and study this discipline.”
“No, I don’t want to marry you.”
“I want to travel here not there.”
“I don’t want to go on that diet. I want to eat the piece of cake.”
“Actually I’m not crying about my dad passing away. I’m crying because it feels like someone may have mistook my artwork for trash and placed it in the garbage can. I’m crying because something that I worked hard on is gone. I was looking forward to giving my mom this gift and now I won’t be able to do that. While many times I cry about my dad these tears are for something different.”
Often times people are doing their best. They want their students to succeed so they encourage them to take necessary classes or challenge themselves. Maybe Mr. Scott was trying to be sympathetic. I believe that most people have great intentions, but we still need to question the system. Don’t just accept it because it’s there.
Let’s encourage our kids to follow their dreams. When they come to people who are in positions of power with their thoughts and goals, let’s try not to shut them down right away.
Our standard educational system continues to silence students and imply that they don’t know themselves very well.
By ignoring this issue, we are failing our children.