I Should Have Known Better

While 2020 brought with it a host of disappointments and challenges, it was, for me, a year of unexpected learning experiences. I dug deep and questioned my beliefs both personally and professionally. I leaned into the discomfort of examining my bias. I felt I had done the work.

And then I revisited a harmful, yet common practice I had used very early in my career, and for the first time, I realized I should have known better.

As the district mentor supervisor, I guide new elementary teachers as they learn to navigate instructional practice and the nuances of effective classroom management.

During a professional learning session with year 1 teachers last fall, I began sharing my usual series of cautions surrounding the use of behavior charts. Most elementary teachers begin using them as a crutch to keep students on task. Thankfully, the recent focus on social emotional wellness has brought to light the harm these simple tools can inflict and their obvious lack of effectiveness. While useful in terms of immediate, temporary compliance, behavior charts offer no guided, reflective experience. They are, in effect, based on punishment, and as such, aren’t designed to help students develop skills of self-regulation. Even worse, there is additional evidence of the deeply lasting effects this kind of public shame can have on kids, especially for those whose clips continually head south on the chart.

As I confidently guided my new teachers in a discussion, I humbly shared a similar bad practice I used in the late 80s at the beginning of my career. I described listing on the board the names of students who weren’t following expectations. Having your name on the board meant you missed your recess break, but if a student continued to misbehave, check marks were placed by the name, and a parent phone call would follow. It’s the perfect illustration of an unreasonable consequence that can inflict emotional damage. However, I found myself attaching a somewhat defensive statement to my admission: “Ya, that’s how teachers did things years ago. Can you see the harm in this kind of practice? Of course, it was very common back then, and the kids were probably used to it.”

And then it hit me. For years I have shared this horrifying, outdated practice, and each time, I have excused my own behavior.

As if I cannot possibly be held accountable for shaming students publicly, because after all, “That’s just how we did things back then.”

I had been excusing my own bad practice just as Americans have excused inequitable and racist behaviors. “Grandpa is racist, but you know, he’s from that generation. He grew up that way.” “Oh, back then that’s just how we did things.” As if kindness, respect, and civility are new concepts they wouldn’t have known about - like cellular technology or the internet.

Although writing kids’ names on the board in the 80s was a common practice, it was still rooted in shame. I doubt there has ever been a teacher who listed those names with a compassionate, empathetic chalk stroke. The shame was deliberate and convenient.

I should have known better.  I should have done better.

For me, the realization I had been excusing my past, shame-based practices was actually one of my best moments of 2020. Reflecting on current societal issues transferred into my professional work, and I am now brazenly aware of the harm I may have caused my students. I wish I could apologize to them, and not just those students whose names made it to the board. The fear and discomfort I caused those students whose names never made it to the board was no doubt just as awful. I can only imagine how much trust was broken each time I placed a name on the board. So many students thinking, Will my name go up there? Will she still like me? Those students may have been obedient out of the fear of embarrassment, but the forced compliance only lessened the depth of our relationship.

Needless to say, I’ve changed my approach in this workshop. I will now own my harmful past practices without excuses, and I will willingly share my regret for those students for whom I caused anxiety or embarrassment. As I focus on sharing effective strategies and restorative practices in my workshops, I hope our new teachers will embrace the use of more empathetic, respectful efforts that will strengthen the teacher-student relationship.

We know better. We can do better.

Allison Riddle has been an elementary educator in Northern Utah for the past 32 years.  After 27 extraordinary years in her own classroom, Allison is currently the Elementary Mentor Supervisor for Davis School District where she leads the mentoring and professional learning of over 300 new elementary teachers. Passionate about mentoring and teacher leadership, she continues to develop teacher leader opportunities in her district and teacher leader competencies and micro-credentials in Utah. Allison is a Lowell Milken Fellow, a two-time NEA Foundation Global Fellow, and a 2015 Horace Mann Award winner. She is the 2014 Utah Teacher of the Year and currently serves as President of the Utah State Teachers of the Year (UTSTOY) chapter.  @UtahTOY2014.


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