Aug 21

The Golden Rule Applies – Sort Of

[This post is influenced by all the start of the school year memos and blog posts I’ve seen and some of the conversations I’ve been having lately… just some of my thoughts about how to think about the classroom as we start the school year.]

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

It is, according to Wikipedia, a concept that is mentioned in one way or another in every major religion of the world. And as we go back to school we consider how we will work in our classrooms, is worth revisiting as a strategy for classroom management.

On the whole, it’s not a bad way to think about working with kids. After all, we should always consider how we would feel any classroom run by our rules. One of the reasons I tended to be more tolerance of lateness when I was in the classroom was because I wanted people to be tolerant of my own lateness as well.  I let kids drink coffee in my classroom because I wanted to drink coffee in my classroom. And certainly I had a list of things that I would never do to children because they had been done to me when I was a student.

But I worry that this idea gets perverted a bit from time to time too. I’ve seen teachers punish kids because it was what they wanted the teacher to do to a student when they were students. Many teachers, not all, were the “good kids” in school, and I think it is possible to fall back on the feelings of frustration that we may have felt when other kids didn’t do what we wanted them to do back when we were in school. That is, I fear, part of what is going on subconsciously when a teacher justifies a punishment or reaction to a student by saying something along the lines of, “What would the other kids in class have thought if I didn’t…”

And it can be hard to apply the Golden Rule when, as a teacher, we encounter behaviors that were so alien to our own patterns as students. We can think, “If I did this, of course I would want to be punished,” because we don’t fully understand what is going on inside a child’s mind when the engage in whatever that behavior may be. For example, it wasn’t until several years into my teaching career that a student explained to me in a way that I  finally could hear that her plagiarism was not committed out of laziness or defiance or even an attempt to get over on me, but rather was born of fear and panic over what I thought was this wonderfully open-ended assignment – one I would’ve loved as a student, but one that had completely flummoxed my student who needed more guidance than I gave. Did there still need to be ramifications for plagiarism? Of course. But I had to work on my empathy to understand the behavior and make sure that my presumption of a motive did not unduly influence the consequences of her actions. And I needed to listen to her and understand and deal with the person she was, rather than worry about how the kids who were more “like me” in the classroom would react if I didn’t do something drastic.

I suppose on some level, the Golden Rule is shorthand for empathic thinking and empathic actions. But let us remember our own biases when we apply the rule. If we are to use the Golden Rule in our classrooms, let us do so this way – when a student gives you his or her motivation for an action, imagine it was you sitting there. Imagine it was true. Imagine that you were sitting there with a teacher, and the teacher looked at you and you knew the teacher didn’t believe what you said. Better yet, imagine if the teacher never even asked you why. Then ask yourself how you would feel about whatever consequences the teacher imposed upon your actions.

There is a way to find out how we should act towards other people as teachers in classrooms. We can ask. We can listen. We can feel empathy and care, even when kids fall short of our – and quite probably their own – expectations. And we can therefore take action that honors all of the members of the classroom.