I taught 4th grade at a rough inner-city school for a year. Plagued by the effects of poverty, racism, and the caste system that is our broken education structure, this elementary school held kids prone to a wide range of social, economic, and mental issues. I quit after that first year for a lot of reasons, but none of them were “because I didn’t want to work with the kids.” In fact, that’s the reason I want to go back one day, when I’m more educated and better trained. You may read that and think, “Well you had a really positive experience with those kids at least.” That’s partially true. But mostly WRONG. WRONG. I shed tears, felt beaten down, and questioned everything about my abilities and motivations for nine months straight. I loved those kids by the end, but they didn’t make it easy most days. They acted on their ADHD, their ODD, their hunger, their anger, and their fear. Daily. They were obstinate. They were obnoxious. But I wanted to teach them. Which is why, with the exception of holding children in a gripped hug to break up fights, I never laid a negative hand on them.
The recent case of a South Carolina police officer assigned to a school assaulting a disobedient student is disgusting. And, typical of the internet and its role to give equal voice to the stupid and intelligent alike, there’s a ton of defense for the officer. The girl wasn’t listening, they say. If you don’t want the consequences, do what the authority figure tells you, they say. She played a role in her assault, they say. It’s really her fault when you think about it, they say.
In my classroom, I was the authority. Usually an island of it, given the ineffective administration downstairs. But never did I use physical force on a student to demonstrate or defend that authority. It didn’t matter that they were 4th graders; I would have looked at teens with the same regard. I’ve also worked with teens, and while they are developmentally young adults, they’re children in ways, too. Impulsive, stubborn, often straight-up jerks. And when they were jerks? Nope, still didn’t sling them across the room. I’m a big guy, so it’s not out of the question, either.
Despite my adult identity as a left-wing socialist commie nut job, I grew up in a moderately conservative household (politically and religiously) where spanking was a legit method of short-term punishment. And maybe because of the way my parents went about it, I don’t have the immediate negative reaction to spanking that many of my friends do. Good parents do the best they can with the information they have. Given that many voices in the psychological/sociological world that now say spanking teaches the wrong lessons, I probably won’t spank my future children. But I sure don’t begrudge my parents for the quick pop on the back of the leg I often got. Why?
Because a spanking and abuse look different to anyone with a lick of sense. And because the physical act, which quickly halted my bad behavior, wasn’t the lesson in and of itself. The lesson ALWAYS came after. My parents talked to me. They explained which choices I should have made, and they let me know that they were keeping watch to make sure I made them. They taught me. Especially by the time I was a teenager, I was guided by words and reasoned lessons. That’s how my parents led me into adulthood. I’m busted, but that's not their fault. They did a great job.
Teaching how to be is the point. The real point. Teaching kids the information wrapped up in a liberal arts education is secondary. But if you’re teaching correctly, you are molding young people to be good adult people. You do it knowing that the stupidity they exhibit as still-forming persons won’t be there forever if you show them the proper way to grow and learn about and from the world around them.
This is the role anyone has who works with children. Whether you lead the classroom, take calls at the front desk, or patrol the halls as a police officer, you are there to teach. And violence does not teach, at least not the lessons you think. Violence teaches violence, never compassion. Violence erodes trust. You think any of the kids in that classroom we see in the video are going to trust the next school officer? Or the one patrolling their street? Trust in leadership and authority figures isn’t maintained through an iron hand. If you believe that, I hope you don’t have kids. If you do, I hope you rethink how you parent them.
Did I ever want to fling a kid I worked with? Yeah. The frustration those who work closely with children feel is real. Would I have ever done it? Hell no. Children and teens are volatile, but they’re also rather easily influenced. Talking to them like they’re a person goes a long way. Most situations can be deescalated just by talking. I remember one day when a 5th grader got mad at being assigned detention. He tore apart the office, throwing papers everywhere and knocking over a chair. He started to leave the school grounds. I was nearby, and, being a male and also of size to match up to this rather tall young boy, the principal asked me to do something. In fifteen minutes, we were back in the office where he was sitting quietly and apologizing. Why? Because I talked to the kid. I asked the right questions. I said the right things. He responded to the humanity I showed him. And of course there are situations, as there were in my school, where the threat of violence a student poses, to herself or others, warrants physical restraint. But restraint is not assault. Proper restraining holds do not harm. You’d never confuse them for assault.
Our children are not in our care to be criminalized. They are there to be taught real lessons by trained and patient adults. And if you’re not a trained and patient adult, like the just-fired officer in this case, you should never have an authority role with children. Or any authority role that deals with everyday people. Helping humans become better humans is a goal we can all share, and we can all take practical steps to do it correctly. It just takes time and information. But who am I kidding? Who in America wants actual information or will devote the actual time to get it? At the very least, “the adults in our schools” would be nice.