When I was in the second grade, I had a teacher whom I regarded as evil incarnate, and her name was Mrs. Z. Despite the fact that she was old, short, and frumpy, Mrs. Z. loomed over me. I was intimidated by her and she was probably peeved by me. At that age, I broke rules that seemed unimportant; I would stand out of line, talk when I was supposed to be silent, and pretend that I didn’t hear when it was time to come in from recess. However, Mrs. Z. did not tolerate misbehavior. To get us in line, Mrs. Z. used a brutal tactic; she humiliated us.
For example, Mrs. Z. had a big poster board with all of the students’ names on it, and every time a child read a book, Mrs. Z. would put a sticker by the child’s name. Those stickers were a source of unfriendly competition among my classmates; we were all too aware of the kids at the top, those smart kids with a long line of stars, and the children at the bottom who didn’t read much. I worked hard but could not catch up to two of the kids whose strip of stars sparkled across the poster board. Once, I went up to Mrs. Z.’s desk to be quizzed on several thin books. I was always a bit afraid of her, and when she asked me questions one-on-one, I completely blanked out. I could not remember any of the details about the first book about a fox. I remembered little of the second story and I don’t think Mrs. Z. even bothered to ask me about the third. Then, Mrs. Z. turned from me and made an announcement to the class. “Here is a smart girl who could read well, but she has lied to me about reading books.” I was horrified. I had actually read the books, but I was nervous and momentarily forgetful. As a child, I had no idea why I could not remember the books; I had no idea that my fear of her made me freeze. Also, I had no idea how to defend myself against the public accusation that I had lied. What could I, a little girl, possibly say or do to argue with this big authoritative adult? Mortified, I looked at the ground, hurried back to my desk and sat down.
In another incident, I watched my friend David, who kept getting up and wandering around the classroom, day after day. Mrs. Z. got fed up with David’s restlessness and his rising without permission, and so she tied him to the chair. I thought it was funny at the time and I didn’t see anything wrong with it, but when I told my mother, she was appropriately appalled.
Once, I hiccupped extremely loudly and Mrs. Z. thought I was making noise to misbehave. “I know who did it,” she announced, walking between the rows of desks and looking from face to face. “The person needs to speak up or he will be in trouble. I know who did it.” She scared me right out of the hiccups. Well, I was familiar with the “I know who did it” bluff, and so I turned my head and looked around the room for the guilty party like everyone else was doing. I said not a word. However, this time, it was no bluff, and Mrs. Z. called me out. Then she had me sit under a table in the back of the room, and Mrs. Z. sat in a chair at the table to grade a stack of papers. She had embarrassed me again.
My best friend Tracy was in my class, and after school, we would play games of “house” and we’d imagine Mrs. Z. in all sorts of brutal roles. We’d meet in the driveway by the metal milkbox next to my kitchen door, and ask, “What if Mrs. Z. was your nurse?” Then one of us would be Mrs. Z. and the other would be the patient, and we’d imagine Mrs. Z. with long syringes coming roughly to inject the victim. “What if Mrs. Z. was your mother?” and we’d pretend that she constantly yelled at us and punished us, and that she made us eat terrible food and go to bed hours before our usual bedtime. “What if Mrs. Z. was your neighbor?” and we’d scream and run. I loved this game with Tracy.
I have been a teacher for over 30 years, and I have tried to understand Mrs. Z.’s perspective. When she taught me, Mrs. Z. was in her early 60’s and she was about to retire. She was probably tired of teaching and was frustrated by the antsy behavior of little kids. She seemed to believe that children should be kept in line, whatever it might take. Her punishments subdued most of us temporarily, and consequently, she probably thought that her means were effective. When she was a girl, teachers were allowed to use physical punishment such as a slap on the hands, but this technique was forbidden by my school. Maybe Mrs. Z. thought that as a punishment, humiliation was a lighter burden to bear than a slap, though I disagree; both punishments are harmful.
Despite my efforts to understand her, I never developed much compassion for Mrs. Z. and I still abhor her strategy to humiliate us. Nothing good comes from shame. It stifles learning. Instead, children need compassion and guidance, plus joy and motivation to engage in activities. When students are looking forward to a lesson, they behave; the more hands-on a lesson is, the more the children concentrate on it, and the less discipline is an issue. Did we have many hands-on activities when I was in second grade? I doubt it; it was not in vogue at the time.
I do not believe in posting stars to show who is best at an activity, because it leaves so many children feeling poorly about themselves. Private commendations are beneficial, and it’s important to find an opportunity to cheer for every child’s progress.
As for my friend David, perhaps he would – rightly or wrongly – be diagnosed today with ADHD. Either way, as a teacher, I would give him extra tasks to do that got him out of his chair, to water some plants or sharpen some pencils, for example. In working with children, I try to understand things from their point of view and to use my adult mind to guide the person to successful, appropriate behavior.
My childhood game with Tracy demonstrates the great importance of play; “What if Mrs. Z. was…” helped us investigate a pressing problem that we faced day after day. In our game, we exaggerated and acted out Mrs. Z.’s nastiness. The person portraying Mrs. Z. could be infinitely powerful. The other person, an undeniable victim, could shout and scream and argue in ways that we could not do in the classroom. We diffused our fear by expressing it and then laughing about the whole situation. I do not know why the victim never won in our game, but Tracy and I were happy pretending to be the cruel teacher and the outspoken victim. We recreated the conflict with our teacher in many different scenarios and let the drama entertain us.
Looking back on my experience in second grade, I see the vulnerability of a seven-year old girl who sometimes succeeded and other times bumbled her way through school and her way through life. I see a teacher who used her power to intimidate rather than to nurture students. Mrs. Z. probably did some very nice things when she was teaching, but I can’t remember a single one. Shame cast a shadow over all my memories of that year. Humiliation has no place in education.