Points In Between: Episode 6
[Intro sounds: kids yelling, door opening, footsteps in hallway, classroom voices, bell ringing to start class.]
You’re listening to Points In Between.
This is Episode 6: Behave!
This episode of Points In Between explores the relationship between students and the people on the other end of the equation at school: their teachers. You’ll hear stories about how students and teachers interact with each other in classrooms here and in places around the world.
If your only experience of American education has been as a student, or maybe as a student and a parent, you may feel like you intimately understand schools, but…I’m just going to be blunt here: you don’t. There is a whole world of activity going on behind the scenes and as a student you catch only glimpses of it. I’m not trying to be dismissive. I’m sure you have some good observations. I’m just saying, getting your hair cut does not make you a barber.
Let me illustrate. Here’s Cat, describing her elementary school classroom in Spain:
Cat: I remember doing a lot of what I now looking back think of as like stations or free choice, where every student would be sort of working at a different level on a different activity. But we had these kind of workbooks that we would be working on and so the teacher would sort of float and just kind of check in on each student one on one and I don't remember a lot of like lecturing or like listening to the teacher explain things to the whole class. My memory of it is that it was very individuated, but I don't know that's true.
From the student perspective, this classroom involves independent activity. You, the student, move through the space of the classroom. You maybe have some relaxed interactions with classmates while you work or explore. You feel a fair amount of volition and control over your experience. The teacher drifts in and out of your vision at seemingly random points.
The teacher view is very different. You see maybe 30 individuals, moving through a path you set up – any one of whom can veer wildly off course at any time. Rather than a close focus on a single task, your mind is engaged in pattern recognition, looking and listening for anything that might require your directed attention. There are certain classroom sounds and movements that are within expected parameters and, if you’re a teacher, your focus gets drawn to anything outside of that norm. Students, in your perception, shift back and forth. One second a kid is an individual, the next she’s part of a separate collective entity called “the class.” Your goal is to get each individual to learn, but to do that you have to choreograph a dance for the whole class. It takes a lot of skill and practice to do that well.
And what I just gave you is a pretty mechanical analysis. It leaves out the students’ personalities and their enjoyment (or lack of enjoyment) of the process. It doesn’t consider the teacher’s skills or the teacher’s or goals for student learning. And it ignores the most important thing in the room, which is the complicated personal relationships between students and teachers.
With those two views in mind, as you hear people’s descriptions of their school experiences, I’m going to draw your attention to four different aspects of the teacher-student relationship. For organizational purposes, I’m just going to call them teaching methods, hierarchy, formality, and privacy.
We’ll start with Ra’ouf, who lived in Yemen until he was 16.
Ra’ouf: For elementary school it was mainstream education .You just learn the language and some other subjects, you know, but mainly like art, you know, since they were trying to get us [to] grow and have fun. And then once you get into middle school you start to take subjects such as, you know, history, biology. There was school but the resources were not very sufficient and the teaching was not very well-constructed and so it wasn't very informative. I mean, that's how I felt when I came and I compare and contrast between the US and I know it's a big comparison but... yeah Yemen is a poor country - in fact it's the poorest maybe country in the Middle East - and that's just unfortunate. And the fact that I was living in the rural area meant a lot because there was not so much of an effort to give too much resources and the teachers were not just showing up. And then at same time you know I just felt that my time was not efficient and I was not really productive going to school and I didn't feel also safe.
This is a pretty blunt critique of the teaching methods in Ra’ouf’s school in Yemen. His teachers had neither the material resources nor the knowledge and skills to make school feel useful to him. And, as he said, he also felt unsafe while he was there.
Ra’ouf: For example the treatment of the teachers to the students is a very sort of violent. Like, you know, if you show up late at school then you get hit by the - the teacher will hit you like maybe eight to ten times on your hand. And by the time you know you get into the school you’re kind of like, “OK, this is enough. I don't even want to go anymore.” And that's the reality. I mean, most students don't...if they sort of like woke up late or they got caught up in their way to school and there is that sort of fear already inside them, you know, that make them feel like, you know "I don't even want to go because what would I get? Nothing. Only you know maybe getting my hands getting hit.” And that’s why I decided just to help my mom and my siblings by working at the farm and some other jobs.
There’s an incredibly complicated power dynamic in classrooms. The core question is: How much control should the teacher exercise over events in the classroom, and what tools does the teacher have to enforce that control? In any school, the answer is a mix of cultural and institutional factors.
In Ra’ouf’s description, the teacher is the only decision-maker. Power is not shared. To enforce this order, Ra’ouf’s teachers were allowed to use corporal punishment. The institution itself gave them that tool. Between the poor teaching methods and the enforced hierarchy, it just didn’t feel worth it to Ra’ouf to be there. So he left.
Corporal punishment of students is a tool wielded by schools in most parts of the world, which is a pretty clear statement about hierarchy. In the US, corporal punishment is allowed in public schools in 19 states and prohibited in 31. Only two states outlaw corporal punishment in private schools – Iowa and New Jersey. Just because a state allows corporal punishment, though, doesn’t mean schools choose to use it. The majority of all corporal punishment in the US happens in just 5 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas. And then also, there’s the question of who, within a school, has the right to use it and under what circumstances. In Ra’ouf’s school, teachers had the individual discretion to use it at will. In the US, the actual hitting is only done by the principal in a lot of places– sometimes only with the express permission of parents.
Ra’ouf had one more point to note.
Ra’ouf: And then the other thing is, you know, women are segregated. That's social, social aspects, and that's what I find really interesting from you know moving from Yemen to…[the US]. So in a sense everything was sort of transformative for me, like socially, academically when I came to the United States and it took me a while to adjust.
Gender segregation is a complicated topic. But in the simplest terms, in Yemen, women and men are segregated in public spaces but close family members can interact in private spaces. The segregation of girls in school indicates that the classroom is firmly situated in the public sphere, not the private.
When Serafin began school in California at 16, he noticed some big differences between his American school and the one he attended in Senegal.
Serafin: The way students act in class, you can – here people can drink in class, water, whatever…You can to the guy sitting next to you. Back home, in order to get water, you have to raise your hand and ask, “Can I so get some water?” Sometimes they say yes, sometimes they say no. And you cannot just turn around and talk to the person next to you. You might get kicked out of class or whatever. So, it was a shock when I was seeing students chatting in class. I was like, “Oh. This is good. I like that.’ [laughs]
In class is just class because if you get caught talking to anybody without a teacher's permission either you go behind the door on your knees or you get kicked out of class. And then when you get kicked out of class, usually what they had was like supervisors walking around the whole school looking at who got kicked out of class so they can call your parents and then nobody wanted to have their parents come over. I remember getting kicked out once and the teacher goes, "Stay outside of the door" and I'm thinking like "I don't think so.” So I went to the bathroom and was just in the bathroom for hours until class was over and I went back to class. [laughs] But I wasn't thinking about standing in front of that door and seeing supervisor. "Oh! Your son is outside. He got kicked out of class!” Um, no. Not going to happen.
Shane: Did you have a good - do you remember having a good relationship with your teachers? What was that relationship like or was it very distant? How would you describe it?
Serafin: Very distant. It was just school. "I'm the teacher, you're the student.” The only teacher I only had a good conversation with: my PE teacher. Because I love exercise so we talked about soccer and basketball and a lot of stuff.
One way to think about Serafin’s description is in terms of hierarchy, but this description also involves formality, by which I mean an expectation that everyone – teacher and student alike – will follow a set of behaviors dictated by their role in the classroom. These aren’t separate things. The rules governing student behavior are aligned with the hierarchy of the classroom. The teacher had the ability to use corporal punishment to maintain that order.
The emotional distance that existed between Serafin and most of his teachers, anyway, was also an expression of that formality and hierarchy. Their respective roles did not – teacher and student, in most cases didn’t provide space for more personal relationships.
In his California classroom, by contrast, those particular rules – that formality – didn’t exist. Even if his teachers were frustrated by student chatter, and I suspect they were, the classroom was a space that allowed for some negotiation between teacher and student and teachers could not use corporal punishment to enforce or influence student behavior.
Serafin: When everybody walks to school, you have the principal at the door looking at how you dress.I remember not tucking my shirt in and I got called in - when I was in class - I got called in on the telephone, “Go to the principal's office.”
I was like, “What did I do? Well, whatever.”
So I get there. “Your shirt is not tucked in. You're wearing a hat, which is not allowed.”
I was like, [sigh].”
“Take it off!” They took it away.
“You don't have a belt either.”
“Take off your pants!”
So I took off my pants, left it at the principal's office. They kicked me out. I went home with a shorts. And then got home, "What happened?"
"I was dressed incorrectly."
And I got a beating. So next day I figured out how to dress the proper way to go to school. It was like well... “That's the way to do it.” [laughs]
Shane: Wait. [also laughing] So let me make sure I understand this. How old were you when this happened?
Serafin: Probably 16.
Shane: OK so 16, you show up at school, the principal says, “You're not dressed properly,” calls you into his office, makes you take off your pants, and sent you back home with your underwear.
Serafin: Yeah, and get home, give an explanation to my dad. "Oh!" Gave me a beating. The next day went back with a belt and proper clothes. It's a little bit...it's OK now of course, but when I grew up …it was hard. You wake up thinking "I don't want to go to school". It was…but…whatever. You got to do what you got to do right? [laughs]
In this account, Serafin’s principal enforced the dress code – a type of formality – through the use of corporal punishment and – I think we can assume - humiliation. The lesson was reinforced at home by Serafin’s dad. So, also, if we consider this in terms of privacy, the line between Serafin’s school world extended its reach into his home world.
Nearby, in the Gambia, Lingerr described a similar school hierarchy.
Lingerr: So the expectations about how children behaved in the classroom, I mean, is way more severe. I think the students I have right now in the school I teach in are actually really polite so I don't have that many issues with them, but in Gambia I don't think that children were necessarily ruder but the punishments were way more intense. They actually had stopped beating children a few years before I went into high school, but they pull your ears, and one time when my teacher just thought I was making noise and she pulled my ears and I'm still angry this and I wasn't making noise. And she pulled my ears and it's really painful!
[Both Lingerr and Shane laughing]]
Shane: Yeah. I can tell you’re like worked up still. [both still lauging]
Lingerr: This was like 20 years ago…[laughs]
I guess you might question me for laughing at this point and that would be totally fair. But I wasn’t laughing at Lingerr’s physical pain. It was more that suddenly in that moment in our interview, Lingerr’s adult self just disappeared and she became, for a moment, the outraged 8-year-old who got her ear pulled. It’s a reminder that students often disagree with teaching methods, with school hierarchies, with rules, and with violations of their privacy. They just can’t always effectively resist.
I think the accounts you’ve heard so far also give something of a false impression. Hierarchy doesn’t always involve emotional distance. Kids are sometimes the ones to break down boundaries between home and school, private and public. And even though they don’t want to be on the receiving end of corporal punishment, students may see benefits to the orderliness of hierarchical school cultures.
Consider Cat’s view of her teacher in Spain.
Cat: I also feel like I knew her very well. We actually called her by her first name, my teacher. Florencia was her name. But part of that, too, is that we had the same teacher for multiple years and the same group of students so the dynamics were sort of, almost family-like. But there was definitely a sense of - I don't think respect is a strong enough word - but there was a very …there was adoration and a very clear boundary between the students and the teachers. And even though we used her first name, I remember having this like healthy fear of her, in a way. I feel like she was very… she wasn't… I wouldn't qualify her as like a strict disciplinarian but she had, you know, full control all the time of the class.
Cat’s relationship with her teacher was, at the same time, emotionally close and extremely formal. At her new school in Texas, she was confused by the mismatch between her teacher’s official role – as teacher – and her behavior.
Cat: The way adults interacted with kids …and I can't quite put my finger on it. They had like big hair-sprayed hair and lots of lipstick and kind of like big Texas personalities. And I was just so fascinated by them. But there's something about the way they interacted with the kids that was so different. I'm not sure what it was but I …
Even as an adult who is, herself, a teacher, Cat struggles to explain the difference between those two formal roles. She tried again to explain how she thought about her teacher in Spain.
Cat: …a person almost that kind of has like a distinct identity that's not …human [laughs] if that makes sense? I don't know… just the way we would interact with her. It's not that we didn't feel comfortable around her but we wouldn't treat her in the way that you would treat a family member…
This culturally constructed teacher persona is, itself, a tool to engage students and make them want to learn. It’s flexible and in many ways more powerful than corporal punishment. But it also takes training and practice for a teacher to act the part, to strike the right balance between engaging lessons, personal mystery, and emotional connection.
In Texas, Cat was just as surprised by the behavior of her new classmates as she was by her teachers.
Cat: Before I went to school in Texas I had never seen, you know, a student basically talk back to a teacher. And I remember …I remember it happening before I understood what was being said but just the sound of it and the facial expressions. And I remember being so shocked by it, just blown away by you know this little boy named Scoots Hazel who would just …I mean the teacher would say, you know, “Put away your books” or whatever and Scoots would be like throwing something across the room. And I just could not fathom how he dared to do that. It just…I mean part of me was actually really impressed by Scoots Hazel. [laughing] I was like, “He's so daring! He must have a super power!” But I had never - you know, I don't remember a single time when a student in my Spanish classroom defied the teacher.
Cat’s account gets at how truly disconcerting this cross-cultural classroom transition can be. If a classmate could defy a teacher, what else was possible? And in a scenario where such a fundamental rule no longer applied, what did it even mean to be a student?
Let’s not forget that all these people in classrooms – students and teachers alike – are individuals. The culture and the institution may set certain parameters, but each person still makes choices about how to engage with others. Listen to Roya’s account of her teacher in Afghanistan.
Roya: Actually, my first grade teacher, she was one of the beautiful women. I think all the kids were in love with her because she was dressing up really nice, she had this curly hair…the way she was super nice. She was really kind and gentle to the kids. She never raised her voice and all the kids loved her. She was…yeah.
Shane: It's incredible because after such a long time you just like light up when you talk about her even though it's been years.
Roya: It is, it is. It’s just …because it's been years I haven't thought about her. But you just brought it up…yeah. It’s amazing.
While her teacher was beloved, teachers had wide latitude to enforce their control and students had little recourse if their teacher chose violence over kindness. And, as in Serafin’s school, teachers could expect most parents to reinforce their decisions in the home.
Roya: It's like you have to respect the teachers. You have no voice. You have no… there's no…the parents are going to stick around with what the teachers says. So, you know, when you sit there you have to be a certain way. You have to behave. You can't interrupt class. There is definitely punishments [laughs] for kids. It's really strict. Very, very strict.
Shane: Do you remember feeling like…I don’t know…like you wanted to rebel against that or was it just normal, that was the way school was? You didn't think about it?
Roya: It was a normal and it was not normal. There [were] certain teachers that were going to such extremes that we were happy to see we don't have those teachers in our classroom. But because, I guess, we were lucky that I had the great teachers who were nice and weren’t mean. And then next, our other class, there was a lady that she was very mean. She would do things that, literally, we appreciated what we had. [laughs] But yeah, some teachers would really go in extreme ways. Which was really horrifying. It was just scary.
Roya is clear about her disapproval of the teachers in Afghanistan who used extraordinary methods to control their classes. But she also saw drawbacks to the very different system she encountered in California.
Roya: Teachers didn't have much control of the kids. You know, they keep sending kids to the principle and I was like, “Oh, this whole system is so easy! This is a piece of cake!” [laughs] It's like, “Really?!” Just, you know? I really find the American system, it's really easy for children to be able to express themself. There's no pressures of education, there’s no pressures of, “You have to learn this!” You know, if you don’t? If you fail you fail because there is no repercussions of your repeating the whole entire year, right? It's kind of like, “OK, if you're not good enough, you stay in the regular classes but if you're good enough then you go to AP classes. Which, I push myself for that because I found [it] more peaceful on those high - like C.P. classes, AP classes - where more people… that kids are more like there because they want to study, they want to go college. And then you have the regular classes that the kids didn’t want to do anything. They're just throwing papers or just having fun. But there is no pressure of teachers like.... you have to make a decision really quick in high school whether you want to go to college or you finish high school and that's it. But there is no thinking of people to be like, “No. This is what you need to do because if you don't…” you know. So, there's no standards or… expectations for a kid who doesn't want to go to college. Then you just basically pass with C or F, it doesn't matter. You still graduate from high school.
Roya raises a thorny question about her school here in California. One of the primary functions of American schools is supposed to be providing a path to economic opportunity for all Americans through education. Theoretically at least, in that world view, learning is a choice students make. In the school culture Roya experienced in California, teachers did not wield absolute power in the classroom and institutionally there were limits to what they could do to enforce order. Roya appreciated that teachers were prevented from using violence against kids, but she didn’t like now being at the mercy of other students’ behavior. She figured out that academic success was her ticket into a more orderly classroom. But what she couldn’t understand was why that dynamic existed. Why was it important to preserve student power in the classroom if it undermined learning? Why did she have to earn her way into an orderly classroom? And, in a country where education is supposed to be the key to opportunity, why would you let a 14-year-old choose to walk down a dead-end path?
These questions challenge an assumption at the core of our educational system: That success in school and therefor, life, is entirely a matter of individual choices, without regard for context or circumstance.
Juliana comes from Brazil, a country where access to higher education is determined by a single, high-stakes college entrance exam.
Juliana: Well, it was really informal. We get to …of course there is like a limit, of course, but we would make jokes, we would talk to them. We were very open with them. I would say…we had a really good relationship with the teachers. They would always help us. School was also very present in our lives. And, yeah, and it was just quite amazing to actually talk with a professor and be able to have some questions about just life in general and life advice and that kind of stuff. Especially in the last year, which is considered the… the one that is…that you’re like freaking out because you have to study for the… kind of like an S.A.T.
It’s a little bit on an inexact comparison. It plays a larger role in college admissions in Brazil than the SAT does in the US.
Juliana: …because it all comes down to this test to get into college. So yeah, they were pretty good teachers and helped us a lot.
In Juliana’s school culture, teachers were both emotionally supportive and accessible. For Juliana, the relationship with her teachers – the opportunity to share private anxieties - was an important part of her exam preparation.
Attempts by schools and teachers to extend their reach into students’ private lives has been a contentious part of American education from the start. Some of the fiercest early opponents of compulsory public schools were Catholic immigrants who believed – not incorrectly – that Protestant reformers were trying to use schools to teach Protestant values to their Catholic children.
The use of school to influence the culture of the home is widespread. Ruth experienced a blurring of the line between public and private early in her time in Mexico.
Ruth: In third grade and Ms. Mari Elena would call us up one by one at the front of the classroom and check out our nails and our grooming and hair and make you like turnaround and she would comment on whether your nails were trimmed, your hands were washed, your face washed, your hair was brushed. And it was very humiliating to some people who didn't have the like grooming and they happened to be children of Brits who were at the school. You know all the Mexican children were very tidy and nice.
You know I always was worried that she would say that my pants were stained or something. And then interestingly she would bring her guitar and for Mother's Day and Christmas and all of these other occasions we would learn songs as a group and perform them for our moms or our families.
The teacher wasn’t having quiet conversations with kids. She was using her power as the teacher in the classroom to turn something that felt personal to Ruth into a whole class lesson. In her reflection on it, Ruth separated the individual teacher’s methods – which she definitely didn’t like - from broader ideas about privacy and formality – which she felt like she understood.
Ruth: The boundaries are just held in a totally different way. And I think like looking at it from the U.S. and from now having been here for two decades, it does seem blurrier. And, I also feel like, they’re just different rules in a way and different degrees of obligation and…Yeah, what would be seen as respectful and as part of honor in Mexico, here would seem like blurry boundaries or unprofessional.
Shane: And do you think the reverse is also true that what here is seen as professional and appropriate might be read as disinterest?
Ruth: And uncaring. Yeah, uncaring, self-centered, just rigid, rigid and cold. And I think – now, of course I'm overgeneralizing and I think those are things that you could just describe about the culture and look at it in any area that you wanted to and we're choosing relationship between student and teacher. But I think as a whole the U.S. is seen as cold, rigid, and unable to really adapt to a particular context because they're tied to a structure and a certain delineated parameters.
Yesica echoed Ruth’s sentiment, comparing her teachers here and in Mexico.
Yesica: So actually our teachers were actually more...not more lenient, but they were more friendly and then they understood kids a little bit better. They were playful as well. And I feel like here people are just strict because they don't want to get sued or they don't want to be put in a bad light. It's all about their reputation. They want to seem like they're good teachers, but they're not that close to you. Like, it's harder to, I feel like, just form that bond.
For Yesica, her American teachers’ adherence to formality and their distance undermined their ability to teach because it kept them from connecting with students.
I’m going to close this episode with an excerpt from my conversation with Harry, a university exchange student from China. He compares teaching methods, hierarchy, and formality at his Chinese university and UC Berkeley. See what you make of it.
Harry: I attend a lot of classes the first week and it impressed me a lot. I thought the teachers in America will give fantastic speeches, [laughs] but it's not like that - it's the same situation in China. Some professors are very funny. They will tell a lot jokes but some just read that content on the book and just repeat it and write on the blackboard. Yeah.
Shane: Do your classmates behave the same way here as classmates in China?
Harry: No, in China a lot of my classmates, including me sometimes, usually, [are] playing [with] their phone and skip the class. But here everyone in the class, who actually come to the class, will pay a lot of attention in the class and take notes, and they are very hard-working, I think. And library…the library is almost full. Yeah. All the time!
Shane: You seem surprised by that.
Harry: Yeah, because in China we don't have that many midterms in a semester and usually when it comes to the final exam the library is full, but in Berkeley the library is always full.
Shane: And do people participate in class differently here than in China?
Harry: Yeah! The American students always challenge the professors. We will ask a lot of questions, which is great! And in China, we don't ask that many questions. And I find a very interesting thing. The professor at Berkeley - I attended the class - the professor is very great in that field but he always made some small mistakes, like the minus and plus addition. [laughs] They often made some little mistake and that is not common in China. In China, the professor will make everything perfect.
This episode focused on a lot of elements of classroom interactions between teachers and students. You heard examples of different models of classroom hierarchy, different ideas about how teachers and students are supposed to behave, and ways teachers and students blur the line between public and private.
Episode 7 of Points In Between will explore language. Language as a feature of identity, as an obstacle to be overcome by students, and as an entrée into many parts of American society.
[Outro sounds: classroom voices, footsteps, door opening, exterior noises, including school bus]
Points In Between is a production of the California Global Education Project. See the Points In Between web page for additional information about each episode. You can find it at CISPISGLOBAL.org. Look under the Resources tab.